Danish writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn has earned a fairly bullet-proof reputation at this point for creating films which manage to navigate a precarious balancing act between art house indulgence and glorious genre celebration.
Only God Forgives is no exception, showcasing the seedy back streets of Bangkok as it follows the story of a drug-running gangster named Julian, who runs an underground Thai boxing circuit with his brother Billy. When Billy winds up dead, it’s the family matriarch—played to the vampy hilt by a sexy Kristin Scott Thomas—who comes to town seeking the body of her first born…and some bloodthirsty vengeance.
Refn’s film is anything but a traditional revenge tale, however, utilizing a seemingly endless array of impeccably lit, unapologetically artsy shots to spread out the plot as far as the director’s ego will allow. The end results of this approach prove to be the ultimate eye candy for those who appreciate Refn’s obvious adoration of classic 70s and 80s cult/pulp cinema. It’s all bright neon and saturation as Refn splashes a Technicolor orgasm across the screen with reckless abandon.
Of course, Only God Forgives may prove difficult viewing for those who value plot and story over visual aesthetic, while also presenting an endurance test of viscerally graphic, almost fetishized violence. The film’s tale of revenge takes a backseat to some pretty twisted intrigue once the blurry lines of morality and justice come into play, yet the story here doesn’t seem as properly fleshed out or focused upon compared to the visual setup of each scene and set-up.
As such, Only God Forgives could perhaps be considered the most personal of Refn’s films, at least compared to the comparatively straight forward narrative structure of Bronson or Drive. If anything, Only God Forgives possesses more intrinsically similar traits to Valhalla Rising, in that dialog is sparsely and deliberately delivered, utilized to move the plot along, with little wasted breath.
Larry Smith’s cinematography embraces the same dreamlike quality of Valhalla Rising, as well, one which contrasts greatly with the gritty location and backgrounds, most of which is shot at night or in the neon-lit shadows. The film’s closing dedication to avant-filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky seems to be no accident, as Only God Forgives possesses much in common with the Chilean filmmaker’s work, as filtered through Refn’s own unique style.
This divisive reception to Only God Forgives is understandable. Refn’s film expects no quarter and gives none in its mission to artfully present humanity’s violent and sometimes reprehensible nature on screen. It’s also true that Only God Forgives isn’t an easy watch—at least when compared to Drive or Bronson—yet Refn’s stature as one of today’s most interesting and reliably confrontational filmmakers ensures that it’s a film few are likely to forget.