The artistic and aesthetic motifs intrinsic in the primordial work of director Nicolas Winding Refn are extremely fetishlike in their appeal. The euphoric visual and audio experience of Drive (2011) resulted in the best film of that year. Promisingly collaborating again with the searing eyes of Ryan Gosling, Refn has produced Only God Forgives: an intoxicating descent into hell; an exploration of symbolic castration, personal anguish and the human conscience.
It would be a mistake entering the gates of Only God Forgives expecting Drive 2. In fact, it would be a mistake going into this expecting anything at all. This is a wholly unique, original and experimental piece of art. To talk about the plot in regards to the film is no easy task. Refn creates loud films in a quiet way; near muted anti-heroes who don’t exactly have a bad habit of speaking their mind. Comparing Only God Forgives in similarity to any of Refn’s previous films – it is not Drive – it is categorically more in the vein of the polarizing and ambiguous Valhalla Rising. Like Valhalla Rising, Only God Forgives is gripping, elemental and mesmerizing.
This is a fascinating and strange piece of cinema. People who assume the emptiness beyond the elevated, stylish exterior clearly do not know Winding Refn. There is always something going on and what he is saying in those beautiful images, which are on a technical and creative par with…dare I say it, Stanley Kubrick, is the instigator of great fascination. Larry Smith’s cinematography is worthy of every award going; as the camera tracks slowly towards, and with, near motionless actors who are exposed to lighting that would have Ridley Scott looking on with envy. It is not that often that you really get to note and appreciate framing, lighting, costume and actors, shot after shot. The mise-en-scene is excessive without ever pulling you out of the world.
Beyond all the artsy grand statements on the human condition, and it’s mood piece traits, one can see Only God Forgives as a simple narrative about a criminal character who wants to get out of his situation. This admittedly clichéd scenario is given a Refn revamp in the story of Ryan Gosling’s Julian; a man trapped by his own psychological trauma, guilt and life of crime. Ultimately, this is his redemption story and all the symbolism made more sense thinking about it in that context. Once you perceive the characters hands to be an extension of masculinity, the film starts to make some sense. Even so, the film may prove too bizarre for some. It may sound condescending for a critic to say “not everyone will like it”, implying they are too dumb, or impatient, but I guarantee even the most art house of audiences will say passionate things like “this is the worst movie of all time”; even if others are calling it “the best of the year”. I am definitely more in agreement with the latter, but with a film as knowingly ambiguous and reactionary as this, it is easy to understand the validity of such a critical argument, whether you agree with it or not. You will react to this. In either a positive, or a negative way. You will not say it was “alrite”; there will be no indifference.
Ryan Gosling does an amazing thing where he can portray a character and all his inner emotions with just his iris. His eyes have a staggering amount of emotional range and his entire performance is based on that alone. Especially considering that he has about ten lines of dialogue in the film. Kristin Scott Thomas is also abhorrently fabulous, playing cinema’s most evil mother and Lady Macbeth wannabe. Composter Cliff Martinez turns in yet another wonderful, hypnotic soundtrack. Mixing Eastern sounds with Western instrumental music works marvels in creating a unique atmosphere and the karaoke scenes are just…odd.
The mainstream are going to look at the handsome Ryan Gosling with his fists raised and go into this expecting Drive 2. They will hate it. A lot of the niche markets will as well (for different reasons); but even if you did, you could not deny its impact and technical achievement. This is an incredibly effective, dreamlike exploration of masculinity, vengeance and guilt. Call me pretentious, or say I am up my own arse, but I would not say it if I did not believe it. Only God Forgives is the best movie of the year.