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Only God Forgives (2013)


Violent, vulgar, and morally deplorable. Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” is a potent, virus-like blend of the director’s brilliant, ever-expanding repertoire and showcases Refn at his most abstract and unrestrained. Featuring another intentionally heartless, complex, and remorseless performance from Ryan Gosling. “Only God Forgives” might not be as structurally sound or hauntingly visceral as the duo’s previous collaboration,  but it is undoubtedly another art-house spectacle from the rapidly ascending team. Although visually beautiful, “Only God Forgives” remains simultaneously disturbing and littered with symbolism. Clocking in just short of ninety-minutes, its compact and offers a lot of content to absorb, yet isn’t easy to chew or digest. Its vivid, surreal, and ferocious, which makes “Only God Forgives” a delight for Refn veterans and will most likely deprive occasional cinephiles of any remaining cinematic innocence or consciousness.


Julian (Gosling) is an american living in Bangkok. He runs a boxing club, which is a front for his family’s massive drug smuggling operation. His older brother Billy heads out for a night of self-destruction and is eventually murdered. Soon, Crystal (Thomas), Julian’s mother, arrives and arranges for her son’s murderer to be killed. When the family finds out that Lieutenant Chang (Pansringarm) is also embedded in the killing, Julian is urged to to take his life, but it is not that simple.


It’s a veritable sucker-punch to structural cinema, character labels, and appropriated guidelines. ”Only God Forgives” is sure to frustrate and enrage many with its sparse, unsuited dialogue, frequent sequences of prolonged eye-contact, and neon-lit brutality. Nonetheless, the film is an undeniable visual feast and its dynamic, allegoric storyline is beautiful, imagistic, and emblematic. Undoubtedly, some will claim ”Only God Forgives” to be nothing more than an exercise in violence, frightening imagery, and shock. Granted, the substance may not be as prominent and hypnotic as Refn’s hyper-style. However, if you dig under “Only God Forgives” sensationalized, hallucinant surface, you’ll surely find the devil in the details. It may not be the answer you’re looking for, seeing as the material is just as touchy and delicate as Refn’s breathtaking, foreboding visuals, but it is the answer regardless.


“Only God Forgives” is an expressionistic piece of humanity fighting physically, vitally for their soul and mind against hallowed, unquestionable, fearfully revered beings. Whether you chose to brand it temptation, good against evil, man against god, etc…There is a battle of morality and mortality raging inside every single one of us and Refn has conveyed this message with his typically subtle, violent, suave flare. Some may confuse this for pretentiousness, infer that the film lacks grounding, or insist they cannot relate to the film’s characters. Plainly put, you’re not meant to connect with the exterior qualities of “Only God Forgives.” Refn masked the message intentionally with sexual dysfunction, fury, and stoic characters, essentially the opposite of everything we live and die for. Anything worthwhile isn’t easy to obtain.


Amidst all the chaos, symbolism, and violence. “Only God Forgives” portrays an unnerving, obscure, and powerful family drama. While dealing with one another and their own, personal identity crises, true intentions and characteristics are revealed. The viewer is subjected to this unflinching gaze at self-destruction, madness, and honesty, which rivals even the most stomach-churning gore and bone-shattering violence Refn can concoct. Additionally, each individual is dissected through their actions and must suffer the consequences. This is quite possibly the most important facet of “Only God Forgives:” action, reaction, and consequence.

Without question, what drives an experimental, artistic film such as “Only God Forgives” is the cast’s performances, it is essentially cinema’s marrow. Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristen Scott Thomas, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, and Vithaya Pansringarm. Refn has found himself vibrant, strong, and flourishing facets to comprise this heartless mechanism that keeps “Only God Forgives” chugging along.


Yayaying Rhatha Phongam really caught me off guard, she is outstanding throughout the film and looks really good doing so. However, in comparison to her co-stars, she just can’t measure up. You’d think that portraying distant, emotionally void, and bereaved would defeat precisely what cinema stands for, yet, it’s quite the opposite. Apparently, Ryan Gosling could care less what some viewers thought of his faceless, malicious, in my opinion brilliant performance in Refn’s previous flick “Drive” and decided to do it all again…and I am so thankful he did. While it may not top his performance in “Drive,” it’s a completely different form of inhumanity and proves Gosling has got the chops. What can I say about Vithaya Pansringarm? His character’s passion, uniqueness, and intimidation may have stemmed from Refn’s screenplay, but Pansringarm brought it to immaculate life. While I can’t say I’m a big fan of Kristen Scott Thomas, I can say that you will full-heartedly hate her in “Only God Forgives,” which I am assuming is what they were aiming for.


Although it might not be clear-cut, family-friendly, or easy to watch, “Only God Forgives” is why I love cinema. If you can stomach its bloody violence and understand its message, Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” is well worth the arduous journey.

Only God Forgives: 8.5 out of 10.


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