MRR Review: "Only God Forgives"

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Ten years ago in Bangkok Julian killed a cop and went on the run. Now he manages a Thai boxing club as a front for a drugs operation. Now he must avenge his brother's murder
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MRR Review: "Only God Forgives"

-- Rating: R (strong violence, including grisly images, sexual content, and language)
Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: July 19, 2013
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller

Director Nicolas Winding Refn's work will always be compared to "Drive," it seems. "Only God Forgives" is not like "Drive," but more like Refn's "Pusher" series of films. "Only God Forgives" features great actors and is, as expected, visually stunning.

The story takes place in Bangkok with a drug trafficker named Julian, played by Ryan Gosling, and his brother Billy, played by Tom Burke. Billy is a depraved savage who brutally murders an underage prostitute. The girl's father is given leave by a cop named Chang, played by Vithaya Pansringarm, to do whatever he wants with Billy. The girl's father beats Billy to death. Afterward, Chang blames the father for the girl's death, saying she died because her father turned her into a prostitute. To ensure the father does not forget the horrible lesson about prostituting his daughters, Chang cuts off the man's hand with a sword.

This gives insight into Chang's character. It also reiterates, for anyone who has seen Refn's previous films, the sort of mind the director has. He seems to dwell in a parallel universe where a sort of Samurai/vigilante moral code exists. It's as if he lives inside a graphic novel.

Next, the audience meets Julian and Billy's mother, Crystal, who is played by Kristen Scott Thomas. Just by her entrance, it is clear she is a brash, narcissistic bully. After greeting her son, Julian, in a seemingly incestuous embrace, she demands to know why Julian hasn't murdered the man who killed her son. She vows to take care of the man on her own, and in the next scene, her crony is seen slitting the man's throat. Crystal finds out about Chang's part in Billy's death, and this sets off the chain of violent events that follow when she sends her son and her men on a mission to kill Chang. Through scenes both subtle and blatant, it becomes clear Crystal is an incestuous sociopath and kingpin of the family drug business, and Julian harbors a sick sense of devotion to her.

Anyone too caught up in the seedy nuances of Refn's work may miss the fact that every scene seems to hold symbolic significance. Interspersed throughout the film are shots of Chang living his normal, everyday life. He is seen singing karaoke and caring for his daughter, teaching her that people should be good to each other. However, the conscientious cop who sees the world in black and white has no qualms about serving up justice with a side of police brutality, often in the form of torture and murder. All the while, he maintains an utterly calm demeanor. The audience often has to wonder who truly is the sociopath in this film.

Eventually, Julian and Chang meet on the street and agree to fight. In the middle of a barren gymnasium, Julian pulls boxer's punches against Chang's martial-arts moves. The fight is more like a staged play than a brawl, but it's not due to bad acting. The fight is purposely presented this way to show Julian's lack of enthusiasm for anything he's involved in. After Julian loses terribly, Crystal enters the gym. Her eyes lock with Chang's, and it is obvious Crystal is Chang's true adversary. Julian just schleps alongside his mother.

Refn seems to see pronounced duality in men and women, and he exploits that duality. Chang has great sympathy for women throughout the movie, but he has no difficulty dealing with Crystal in a manner fitting her despicable character. Julian agrees to commit murder to avenge his brother's death even though he is appalled by his brother savaging the young girl. Julian is not under duress. He simply seems resigned to do as his mother says.

"Only God Forgives" is a visual masterpiece. The movie is mostly devoid of dialogue and uses music and visual artistry to convey the story. Some scenes show people talking with normal accompanying hand and head gestures, but the audience only hears music. The dialogue is inferred by a ballet of the speaker's gestures. Every shot in the film has some underlying meaning about the specific characters, about the morality of people, and about life in general.

Cinematographer Larry Smith and composer Cliff Martinez should be applauded for their work in "Only God Forgives." Although it may be easy to get caught up in the film's violent scenes, it would be a shame if the aggressive action blinded the viewer to the brilliant nuances incorporated in "Only God Forgives."

Rating: 3 out of 5