(TODAY'S GUEST: Re-joining us here at Jaman HQ is Rohan Morbey, who blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK. Rohan has graciously allowed us to post his review of Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn's eagerly awaited (and ultimately divisive) follow-up to his 2011 opus Drive. We're always happy to welcome Rohan to Jaman HQ, and hope you will follow him on Twitter.)
Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives is an essential neo-noir, this cannot be overstated. As a huge fan of neo-noir, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives becomes, for this reviewer, one of 2013’s essential film releases and one which will be appreciated in years to come by those who do not, or cannot, appreciate it now.
First and foremost, the film is shot, lit, and photographed at such a heightened level of design it transcends limits most other film makers dare not approach. Refn’s framing of each and every scene (and that is meant literally) is exquisite, and along with his 2011 film Drive, is the closest thing to a deliberately designed look of ‘perfection’ we’ve seen since perhaps Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. With such a style comes prolonged, still shots bordering on tableaux vivants as actors glare and smoulder at the camera only to be cut off by a slow dolly up a neon-soaked corridor; often Refn’s camera hardly moves, for the mise-en-scène is so carefully designed and everything we need to know is in the frame(s) which comprise the scene. There is no need to throw the camera around to create an atmosphere when the right shots are chosen.
Refn’s use of neon colours, with rarely a glimpse of natural light until the final’s final act, help give the film its noir sensibilities whilst presenting Bangkok, a city of over 8 million people, as a stifling pressure cooker of forbidden desires where the guilty have come to find redemption or face their inescapable end. The film has barely any dialogue, some not in English, yet the direction, nuanced acting from leads Ryan Gosling and Vithaya Pansringarm, and superb score by Clint Martinez speaks louder than most films this year could ever hope for. Moreover, there are scenes of violence which make you sit up, grimace, and thank God you’re not part of this world.
Along with main character that hardly utters a word and a femme fatale whose appearance sets about a chain of events which leads to a shocking finale, the film is also thematically rich to back up the visuals and character motivations. Characters are searching for redemption, forgiveness, revenge, recognition, and love, whilst an argument could be made for the oedipal love between Julian (Gosling) and his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and the ‘guilt’ of homosexual desire; look at the metaphorical ‘cage’ between Julian and the girl in the club, or how he turns to violence after his thoughts are invaded by those of his mother, or as he looks away when the girl takes off her dress, or when his mother tells him “You were different... I never understood you, I never will.” Whatever your take from watching the film, Only God Forgives has much depth beyond its stunning visuals.
Drive surprised everyone and was met with critical acclaim in 2011, winning Refn Best Director at Cannes. It would always be a tough act to follow, and given that Gosling was again cast in Refn's follow-up, I can only assume people expected another art house thriller in keeping with Drive's much-deserved success; essentially ‘Drive II’. However, Only God Forgives may just be a perfect companion piece for it goes where Drive could only go so far; it goes much darker, much deeper into the violent world of men and masculinity and does so with a style of its own.
It’s the natural evolution of neo-noir, building on (admittedly superior) films like Taxi Driver, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, Hardcore, Blade Runner, Manhunter, and Se7en, to create a gritty, gloomy world where happy endings are not tacked on for audience approval ratings. This is essential film making for those who can appreciate it.