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Only God Forgives Review: Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling's Luxuriously Stage-Managed Parade of Blood and Guts

By Caspar Salmon | Film | July 19, 2013 |

By Caspar Salmon | Film | July 19, 2013 |

Oscar Wilde famously posited that the true artist need have no moral considerations: true art is not moral or immoral, it can only be good art or bad art; morality is the subject sometimes of art, but not its object. I paraphrase, of course — but I wonder if Wilde would have revised his position if he had been subjected to Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn’s new, luxuriously stage-managed parade of blood and guts. In Winding Refn’s peerlessly daffy vision, violence and gore need have no human dimension attached to them at all, since they are entertaining in and of themselves. That humans have to be killed or tortured in order for us to enjoy the sight of blood and pain is a minor hindrance to him, which he surmounts by having actors play approximations of human beings. Ryan Gosling may have a human face and may occasionally utter words — with the implication that, being blessed with language, he is a person with thoughts and emotions — but in reality he is only one of so many props for Winding Refn to arrange in a deathly-perfect shot under neon lighting. Correction: Gosling is a slightly better prop than, say, a table — because a table doesn’t bleed.

Only God Forgives (a staggeringly dumb and portentous title for a film with no spiritual dimension and only the faintest stab at the sort of moral compass that might be required in order to understand the notion of forgiveness) tells the story of Julian (Ryan Gosling), a young drug trafficker called upon by his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge the death of his murderous brother at the hands of a twisted police superintendent. Kristin Scott Thomas hires some people to murder the policeman, who in turn murders the accomplices of Gosling and KST, and the whole thing proceeds ad nauseam until the face-off you would expect.

That’s in in terms of plot. There is no real need for a plausible narrative when there’s violence to be getting on with and prettiness to stage, and Winding Refn requires only the barest of excuses to get his show on the road. Nearly everything you would hope for from a Nicolas Winding Refn movie is there to enjoy. There is some exquisite lighting and movie-making, with backwards tracking shots galore, and a barrel-load of still frames decorated to high heaven with colourful lamps and flowers and women, and some sumptuous close-ups of Gosling and Scott Thomas in Bangkok, looking like breathing pop-art pictures. There is highly polished work on sound, with a pulsating score underlining the precise choreography — for the murders and fights in here are devised down to the merest drop of blood — and some karaoke music offering respite in between the more violent moments.

That may be as much as I can bear to say in favour of this film, although I would add that creating crisp, beautiful pictures out of violence, and ratcheting up the tension with such consummate skill before an act of torture takes place, are not things I consider plus points so much as indications of a psychological and ethical vacuum. The film’s attempt to create a human drama revolves around an Oedipus-by-numbers narrative of displaced maternal love, and the tension between Gosling and KST is supposed to draw on that. We are told that she is disapppointed in him, and that he wants to earn her respect and love: but all of this is said to us in overt ways at least three times in the film, rather than articulated through proper acting or something akin to dialogue. The result is that the film strains to have any dramatic credibility, since all actions must have an impetus. By the time Winding Refn has reached the end of his carnage, there has been so much senseless death, none of it apparently affecting anyone emotionally in any way, that the film’s paltry effort at character has necessarily had to take a backseat.

There are two possible reactions to the death of a loved one in this film: stoney-faced blankness, or the instant wish for retribution. This may be where Winding Refn is wrong: plenty of people forgive. Forgiveness is part of the life of anyone remotely balanced, but for this director it is easier to foist it onto a deity in order to allow his hand-puppets to off each other.

The actors do their best, but since I was completely detached from the events of the film due to its sterile beauty and lack of psychological verisimilitude, I failed to connect with them. Kristin Scott Thomas, who is got up in a kind of trashy Veronica Lake styling, brings a performance that tends towards the ridiculous, as the foul-mouthed, cowing matriarch: she is written so overtly as a gasp-inducing grotesque that she feels flat. Gosling is blank throughout, apart from one scene in which he screams at someone: this is a pity because if only he had been given the chance to register some emotions the film might have been anchored in something plausible and recognisable to people. Whatever the flaws of Drive, there was at least a narrative that gave the Driver an impetus for his actions — his feelings for Carey Mulligan’s character, namely. Here we are gasping for a reason for all of this to exist, but none comes: it’s a totally self-legitimising work.

I realise I may not be the target audience for this film: I am not entertained by the relentless sight of someone being tortured, but for those who have a fondness for such things, I’m happy to recommend Only God Forgives as the apex of what can be done with a camera, some lighting, two bodies, and a bunch of knives.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.