Nicolas Winding Refn’s intent for his new film, shown in competition this morning, is difficult to discern. Is “Only God Forgives” a send-off to his previous film “Bronson” with a (sustained) nod at David Lynch and liner notes from Eastern philosophies? It would be distasteful to call a film a styling exercise. Filmmakers get our admiration because they invest more into filmmaking than you or I can ever imagine. Moviemaking is a collective effort by people who accomplish a great many things and sacrifices to get a script to screen. And yet, it’s hard not to call this a kind of overwrought and satisfying experiment in styling rather than a fully accomplished film (at least in the sense that would be appropriate when referring to a filmmaker of the caliber of Winding Refn). So we’ll call it a genre film, of the revenge kind.
Having a lack of dialogue, such as is the case here, is alright–in some cases. This afternoon I watched one hundred minutes of Robert Redford being gone at sea in J.C. Chandor’s “All is lost” (and thankfully Redford did not start talking to any inanimate objects) and that was a fine movie regardless of that. But the lack of memorable or likeable characters in “God” significantly dwindles the possibilities of redemption.
Julian (played by Ryan Gosling) is an American fugitive from justice who runs a boxing club in Bangkok as a front for his drug business. His mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives from the U.S. to collect the body of her elder son Billy, who’s just been killed after savagely murdering a teenaged prostitute. Add to this a good dose of gore and violence (most of which is very dramatic and very choreographed), a tenacious police officer who seems to be everywhere and some of the most overstated oedipal complex issues between mother and son I’ve ever seen on screen, and you get “Only God Forgives.”
In preparing for “Only God Forgives” Nicolas Winding Refn spent some time living in Bangkok with his family in order to immerse himself in the eastern way of life and philosophy. For the film’s design concept he seems to draw influence from Wong Kar Wai, David Lynch and Gaspar Noé (not a bad thing at all, in this writer’s opinion). Winding Refn collaborating with “Bronson” DP Larry Smith on this new project is what shines through the most, however: “God” is all bright neon and erotic reds; it also happens mostly at night. Refn said that he wanted to shoot at night as much as possible to give the film what he calls its “alien planet look.”
The one thing I enjoyed about “God” was its soundtrack, composed by Cliff Martinez (not his first collaboration with Winding Refn). Has Martinez always sounded like Angelo Badalamenti? Not sure, but you’ll understand my drawing parallels with Lynch, although this film resembles the latter also in direction, not just in terms of music. And it was also a strange pleasure to discover Kristin Scott Thomas as a criminal empire don-dada, in a performance reminiscent of a cross between Griselda Blanco and a pouty Madonna.
“Only God Forgives” is dedicated to French-Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowski.