In his director’s note for Only God Forgives, Nicholas Winding Refn confesses, “The original concept was to make a film about a man who wants to fight God”. This is perhaps, all anyone whom seeks out this red hot fetishistic trance, needs to know before surrendering themselves to Refn’s exorcised fantasies for an hour and half. If you seek a story driven by traditional narrative and character, stay at home, open a book, or turn on the television. As a director, Refn is only interested in bathing you in a visually rich and primally visceral experience governed by hypnotic dream logic. Stanley Kubrick, no doubt an influence on Refn, once said, “Watching a film is like having a dream. It operates on portions of your mind that are only reached by dreams or dramas”. Refn is no Kubrick, but in that respect of film as a dream, Only God Forgives is a grotesque and exotic nightmare of God vs. The Devil, The East vs. The West, Cop vs. Criminal. A nightmare caked in striking colors and contrasts, with religious imagery planted throughout like carefully designed brushstrokes.
The experience begins with mamma’s boy Julian (Ryan Gosling) emerging out of the shadowy dark into a fiery red and yellow light that just barely reveals his face and the Christ-like boxer statue that looms behind him. Julian and his brother Billy run an Thai boxing club in Bangkok as a front for their family’s drug trade. When Billy rapes and murders a 16-year old girl, he is killed by the girl’s father by invitation of the God-like Chang, a justice serving police captain straight out of the Old Testament. Julian and Billy’s serpentine matriarch Crystal, played with venomous glee by Kristen Scott Thomas, summons herself east to recoup the body of her dead favorite spawn and enact terrible vengeance.
What the film lacks in “Hollywood” script and character, it makes up for in pure visual storytelling. The underworld inhabited and ruled by Crystal, Billy, Julian and their clan is always light by demonic reds and yellows and their lairs adorned with shadows and giant dragon murals. Their world is hell and Billy and Crystal are two sides of the devil. The family and their serving clan (if you don’t count the Thai natives they coach boxing to) are all of the Caucasian persuasion, leaking their foul-mouthed, corrupt Western ways into the Eastern streets. Crystal, with her slithery long blond hair, hisses and seethes orders of blood against her son’s killer like the snake from the apple tree (or the dragon mural that haunts the boxing club), seducing Julian into fighting Chang, the moral overload of the city. In stark contrast, Chang is lit in brighter blues and greens and the sequences that feature his daily rituals are most often in daylight. When each act of justice is served throughout the film, Chang strangely and ritualistically sings to his fellow apostles of morality in a flamboyant karaoke bar-like sermons. Like a holy figure, he is lit by a bright white spotlight as he delivers his gospel.
The distinctions of color and light come into clear play in an early moment, when Chang is called to scene of Billy’s crime. The end of the room occupied by Billy and his victim is literal and figurative blood bath of reds and yellows. Chang, however, is lit by a bright teal light coming through the window. These color distinctions push the emotional narrative forward, foretelling horrors and emotional metamorphosis of Julian. When Chang appears to Julian in prophetic visions, the bathroom in which Julian stoically stands in is a neon blue. The blue light follows Julian again as he sits in karaoke bar listening to Chang deliver one of his ceremonial songs. “I always knew you were different”, Crystal confesses to her son before begging him to murder Chang. But Julian’s pining for the literally untouchable and angelic prostitute Mai deepens an already epic conflict of violence wrestling inside of his fists. It’s probably no coincidence that he is the only member of his family to be named after a saint.
The score too, brooding and towering with organs and drums, suggests a religious scope. It’s been another banner year for Cliff Martinez, who has conjured another inventive and transfixing auditory experience. During one of the films showdowns, Martinez enhances the camerawork that frames two dueling characters as if this were the fight to end all fights with a swirling and ghastly score. It’s not subtle by any means and it doesn’t need to be. It’s just not the nature of this beast. It adds another layer to Refn’s use of the purest elements of cinema, image and sound, as means to spell out (quite loudly) the thematic elements of the film. Spoken word is only an accent.
This micro-epic battle of perverted morality contains some typically violent images that will no doubt leave viewers squirming in their seats. It’s high-trash art, constructed as a slow moving painting where everything is in the image (it was never on the page). Refn doesn’t care if you find him pretentious, and he shouldn’t. This is a ravishing, instinctual, and depraved film, a purely visual experience that will either mesmerize and haunt you, make you want to shower off it’s fifth, or both. If this all sounds like your slice of cake, indulge yourself. Refn sure does.