A movie booed at Cannes can go to a different festival and not only be applauded but also win the Best Cinematography award. Such is the case of Only God Forgives. Yes, while director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film received negative reviews after its French premiere, it was widely celebrated by critics and audiences alike at Sitges Fantastic Film Festival. So, how can a movie generate such a range of different opinions?
What’s it about? With Ryan Gosling in the lead of this Winding Refn film, Only God Forgives could be considered a sort of sequel to Drive. However, Only God Forgives is far removed from their last collaboration, a romantic and heroic film that had everybody talking back in 2011. In Only God Forgives, Gosling again portrays a man of few words, a drug-smuggler thriving in Bangkok’s criminal underworld and whose life get even more complicated when his mother compels him to find and kill whoever’s responsible for his brother’s recent death.
Verdict? Filmed entirely on location around Bangkok, the film is influenced by an Asian narrative style and is a masterclass in cinematography thanks to its outstanding use of colour, shadow and lighting by cinematographer Larry Smith. Designed almost like a silent movie in which the images told the story, the dialogue is kept to a minimum, an artistic choice that risked the movie’s commercial success. Silence is a powerful presence because, once you take dialogue away, the viewer is forced to look closer and pay more attention to details, which is perhaps why some Drive fans will be disappointed by the director’s take on this story. Where Drive had a protagonist who was easy to sympathize with, Gosling’s character in Only God Forgives is a more complicated human being: he’s dark, dangerous, mysterious and his behavior is difficult to understand, as the viewer only has Gosling’s body language and the director’s art to go on. The end result is an even more ambivalent performance by Gosling.
One of the main reasons the viewer has mixed feelings towards Gosling’s character is his relationship with his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is depicted as as a manipulating, evil creature with a weird affection for her son. Thanks to the choice of colours and camera angles, and the director’s method of blocking scenes with the actors, the impression is there’s something sexually wrong about the way they behave together. And if that wasn’t enough, Cliff Martinez’s soundtrack uses the same musical motifs for Gosling’s sex scenes in scenes with his mother.
Although there’s been criticism of the movie’s strong violence – the violence seen in Drive is amplified here – Only God Forgives is a story of revenge and really needs the film’s rough and in-your-face violence to create a complete and profound arc for the protagonist.
Extras: A brilliant in-depth commentary by the Danish filmmaker which explores the themes of the movie, such as the sexual references, the mythological aspects of the title and the meaning of repeated shots of Gosling’s hands. The commentary also explains the use of colours, the fantastic production design, the use of silence and why the three acts of the movie are structured around three karaoke songs. Winding Refn also reveals he had to call the producers to explain there was a ghost that his daughter kept seeing every night and how it affected the production. The Blu-ray edition also has 12 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, trailers and several galleries with concept art from the movie.
Final Words: Only God Forgives is an absolute masterpiece in terms of cinematography. The film plays on a whole different level to Drive, which is both good and bad. If you’re comfortable with violent Asian flicks, you’ll likely find this film a great example, otherwise it might not be quite your cup of tea.
Only God Forgives is on Blu-ray and DVD on 2 December 2013.