Act without words – ★★★★
The first time you cry in life is when you are taken from your mother’s womb. No doubt a traumatic experience and one which Ryan Gosling is still trying to deal with in Only God Forgives. Nicolas Winding Refn will not spoon feed you, instead insisting you decide for yourself what is going on and what meaning to take from this maze of a movie. It’s the second time the two have worked together with their previous outing Drive widely hailed as a modern classic. While the two films share similarities – slow pacing, sporadic dialogue and intense graphic violence – they are two entirely different beasts. Drive focused on how Gosling stands up for what is right and honourable whereas on the flip-side Only God Forgives has Gosling (along with his family) being the characters carrying out such nefarious deeds.
The opening scene of A Clockwork Orange is a close up of Malcolm McDowell which slowly pulls back to reveal his fellow droogs in a Milk Bar, the pace and intensity of the scene and overlying music kept coming to mind as I watched Only God Forgives. Others have noted a similarity to the Kubrick work The Shining when Gosling is navigating the blood red ceiling-less corridors of his dojo. Comparisons will also be drawn to the work of David Lynch especially for the karaoke scenes. So it’s clear the film is rich in filmic nods, but Refn manages to present a fresh, unsettling, beautifully shot piece of revenge cinema with enough Freudian undertones to fund two PhDs.
Billy (Tom Burke) is Julian’s (Ryan Gosling) older brother and has a penchant for young girls. When he rapes and kills a 16-year-old girl, he is subsequently killed by her father but Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) demands revenge. Julian is unwilling to carry this out once he realises what Billy has done to meet his fate. Crystal takes matters into her own hands making things worse and invoking the unwanted attention of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). The opening scenes with Billy are flooded with deep reds and Cliff Martinez’s score creates such unease. It felt as though we were standing in the corner of the blood drenched room of the murdered 16 year old girl, desperate to escape but to no avail.
The arrival of Crystal adds the incestuous overtones to the film making it clear that her motherly love goes further than most. This no doubt gives some insight into Billy’s dark side and Julian is paralysed whenever she is around. She constantly berates and demeans him informing him how the doctors wanted her to have an abortion. Scott Thomas is fantastic as the incarnation of pure hatred and spite. Gosling does a stellar job with fewer than 30 lines of dialogue his face must go into overdrive to keep us interested. His fixation on female masturbation and the vagina culminates in a shocking scene giving us the clearest indication of some need to return to the warmth and security of the womb.
The man of honour Chang, slits people eyes, cuts off their arms, slices them in two and despite all this is the most moralistic of the characters. He has his code and once an attempt is made on his life he will stop at nothing to take his revenge. He kills only perpetrators, doesn’t back down from a fight and seems to be the only person with a modicum of respect for women. He is the lone cowboy figure in this particular western and the calmness he exudes makes him all the more terrifying.
There are no easy answers here; why the karaoke? What is real or dreamed? Why the karaoke? What does the fixation on hands represent? Why the Karaoke?
It is refreshing to see such a bold approach to the medium. It will take your brain a while or perhaps even many viewings to click and get into the rhythm of the film. With such faultless acting in front of the camera and a crack team of Refn, Martinez (Original music) and Larry Smith (cinematography) all working tirelessly we get a film that will require many viewings to unlock its secrets. A tough, at times gruelling experience that may leave you reeling yet has much to offer.
Released on limited release in Ireland on August 2nd 2013
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