(Denmark/France - 2013)
Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Rhatha Phongam, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke, Byron Gibson, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Kovit Wattanikul. (R, 87 mins)
Anyone who expressed concern that polarizing Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn would go mainstream after his 2011 American debut DRIVE can rest easy. His latest, ONLY GOD FORGIVES, might reunite him with DRIVE star Ryan Gosling, but it sprints pretty far away from commercial cinema, probably ending up as more of a companion piece of sorts to Refn's VALHALLA RISING (2010). ONLY GOD FORGIVES got some pretty toxic word of mouth after being booed at Cannes, and most American critics have expressed vehemently negative opinions of it (for what it's worth, Rex Reed declared it "one of the five worst movies ever made," which, given Reed's sunken rep, should actually be used as a positive blurb right out of the David Lynch playbook). This is unquestionably a divisive film that isn't meant for multiplex consumption. If you're looking for narrative, plot, a fast pace, or DRIVE II or some kind of accessible Gosling vehicle, then you'd best steer clear. It's decidedly not for everyone, but if you approach it with an open mind and the idea that it's a Nicolas Winding Refn and if you give it time to settle in and allow yourself to get accustomed to its style and its rhythms--and if you have a strong stomach--you may find ONLY GOD FORGIVES to be a richly rewarding experience.
EL TOPO and SANTA SANGRE director Alejandro Jodorowsky, and gives an additional shout-out to IRREVERSIBLE and ENTER THE VOID director Gaspar Noe, and while there's indisputable nods to both filmmakers, ONLY GOD FORGIVES struck me as Refn's Kubrick film. The cinematographer is Larry Smith, and this isn't the first time he's been recruited by Refn--he also shot 2003's misunderstood FEAR X and 2009's BRONSON. Smith is a former Kubrick associate, having shot his last film, 1999's EYES WIDE SHUT, in addition to working on the camera crew for BARRY LYNDON (1975) and THE SHINING (1980). FEAR X had elements of Refn mimicking Kubrick's cold and detached style, but Refn and Smith take that even further with ONLY GOD FORGIVES. I'm not one to throw around terms like mise-en-scene very often, but the tracking shots, intricate compositions, the almost obsessive detail, the visual and thematic dualities, and the way that everything in every shot is positioned where it is for a specific reason is vital to a proper experience of this film. If you're just looking for the plot, you're going to miss what Refn is doing here. It's a character study told in the most visual of means--through the framing, the colors, the camera movement, the editing, the timing, the cutting. He utilizes a lot of Kubrickian editing techniques that recall the legendary bone-to-space station cut in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). From a story standpoint, ONLY GOD FORGIVES is a fairly standard B-movie revenge/redemption saga. It doesn't break any new ground in that department. But it's Refn's crowning achievement thus far in terms of purely visual, symbolic, cinematic storytelling.
score by former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez, who has slowly become arguably the best film score composer working today, melds perfectly with the unique look that Refn and Smith bring, the humidity and stink of the Bangkok red-light district coming through in every shot that's bathed in melancholy neon red, pink, and blue. ONLY GOD FORGIVES is probably most ideally viewed at 2:00 am in a depressed, sleep-deprived state of mind--with its colors and trance-like feel, maybe it would make an interesting double feature with BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW--though I'd love to see it on a huge screen (Radius/TWC only released it on 78 screens in addition to VOD). This is one of those movies that will overcome its initial round of almost unanimous critical and audience dismissal and outright scorn and it won't take long for it to become a genuine cult classic. When it was over, I wanted to immediately watch it again. I'm calling it now: this is a masterpiece.