After his brother is killed in retribution for murdering a prostitute, Julian (Ryan Gosling) must find a way to avenge his brother and placate his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas).
There is certainly high expectation for Only God Forgives as it reunites director Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling after their previous success together on Drive. The story is one of Winding Refn’s own creation and originally began life as an idea for a film about a man who wanted to fight god.
There is not much that can be said about the performances; most actors – Gosling included – take a leaf from the Drive school of acting, and are monosyllabic at best. This leaves the lead character of the film rather hard to fathom at times. It is only through Crystal (Scott Thomas) as a character, her interactions with her son and her descriptions of him that the audience begins to realise where Julian has come from. Kristin Scott Thomas gives the kind of performance that we have needed from her for a long time. While Crystal is as still as the rest of the characters in the film, she is certainly not afraid to talk, and her influence hovers over the actions of all the characters. Scott Thomas is beautiful, foul mouthed and manipulative, and effortlessly shows that she is an actress at the top of her game.
Nicolas Winding Refn has said that he wanted to make a dark fairy tale about a mother and son, but the story seems to be more influenced by Oedipus than the existential. Sex, and the promise of sex, drip from the screen and, when a character asks Julian why he allows Crystal to treat him as she does, he replied ‘Because she is my mother’, at this stage of the film, this is believable, but as time goes on, it becomes clear that Crystal and Julian’s love for one another may not be platonic after all. Couple this with some facts from Julian’s past, and his reaction to certain events of the film, and it becomes clear that this is a man with an Oedipal streak. Not that he ever says as much. Or much at all.
The film is beautifully shot and saturated with colour. Cinematographer Larry Smith makes use of hallways and doorways to create a film that is more focused on the journey than the destination, although it is obvious that Stanley Kubrick’s work, and Steve McQueen’s Shame, were huge influences on the production as tracking shots and loud patterns rule the day.
Cliff Martinez returns to work with Winding Refn on the soundtrack for the film, and he has created a loud, lush and almost overbearing score. Music almost always tells the audience how they should feel about any one scene, but it seems that without Martinez’s huge score, some of the bigger scenes may have been anti-climactic, so high are they born on the soundtrack.
Only God Forgives is a film that is much greater than the sum of it’s parts. Winding Refn’s goal for the film may not have been achieved, but we are presented with a film about control, power and manipulation that does not have to be wordy to work. That said, there are times when it feels as though the film is an extended version of the trailer (or a particularly beautiful music video), and it is hard to find a protagonist in the mix as no one actor delineates enough to allow his character to change. This is a film that will spark debate, and hugely divide audiences. I am still not sure whether I loved it or hated it, but I certainly appreciated it.