Refn crafts neon hell in Only God Forgives

Though the booing Cannes audience was not pleased that director Nicolas Winding Refn did not give them the desired, unofficial Drive sequel, it was expected that Only God Forgives would be next up in Refn’s eclectic repertoire of films. Watching OGF one can see that the film has been branded on every part of its body to assure the audience that this is Refn’s film. Drive is Ryan Gosling’s vehicle that Refn was fortunate enough to direct. It has the cool, slick essence that Gosling always seems to exude. OGF completely comes from Refn’s mind—his dark, twisted mind. As he said in an interview with Moviefone, “If Drive was good cocaine, [OGF] would be like great, old-school acid,” (7.16.2013).

Set in the hyper-stylized underworld of Bangkok, the film tells the story of Julian (Gosling), a Muay Thai boxing club owner who uses his business as a front for his drug ring with his brother. When his brother decides to murder an underage prostitute, a vengeful cop named Chang, played by the stone faced Vithaya Pansringarm, seeks gruesome retribution against the family. Enter quite possibly the most horrific mother in movie history since Psycho, played by a foul-mouthed Kristin Scott Thomas. With an obedient “Yes, mother,” Julian answers her plea to retaliate against Chang, shedding blood in a sword-wielding, punch-throwing feud.

OGF is not for the faint of heart, and that is exactly what makes this brainchild of a film such a masterpiece. Refn’s lack of a filter allows him to stick his middle finger up to the audience and keep it there loud and proud for a full hour and a half. Whatever popped into his mind seemed to make it into the overwhelming world created in this film. Bangkok became a vessel for the auteur to stylize in whatever way he pleased. Pinks and purples shine from every light, rivaling Joel Schumacher’s Val-Kilmer-led Batman for most excessive use of purple and pink neon lights to grace a film, and that’s a good thing. Throw in some deep burgundy-reds anytime there were no neons, and Refn creates his own hyper-stylized version of Hell.

The world created by Refn is already something that lets the audience know that this film is going to be more fantasy than gritty, real-life thriller, but doesn’t pour it all out there right away. Matching the viscosity of honey, the pace makes sure that anyone in the film who may have a heart condition does not move too quickly (that is until someone gets his chest sliced open by a samurai sword, but more on that later). Refn exceeds in his direction in this way. Most audiences prefer more Michael Bay and less Andy Warhol by way of Empire. Able to maintain this pace, his direction stays meticulous throughout. His direction lends itself to being fantastical just as much as the subjects do. The camera seems to hover above each scene instead of being trapped to the ground. It floats in a way that it makes many feel as if this is a dream.

We finally meet our characters and that is when the dream becomes a nightmare. There is not one character that will be liked for the sake of being a good person. Bangkok is hell in this metaphor-packed film, and all of the characters are there for a reason. Vithaya Pansringarm’s cop, Chang, or “Angel of Death” as he is known on the crime ridden streets, is the ballad singing devil with a deadly sword slice. As Chang goes to extreme measures to bring crime off the streets, he intermixes karaoke bar trips where he sings to an ever-decreasing squad of cops that only adds to this man’s overbearing eldritch persona.

One of the most important scenes for this character (and the whole film) comes when Chang needs to deliver a punishment to a man with his kid in his presence. The kid sits lifelessly in a chair, his feet too small to reach the floor. He does not blink as he stares back at an equally unblinking Chang. The camera bounces between each of them as it moves slowly into their faces. As the deep bass of the music pounds away, the audience watches Chang seek bloody revenge upon the man.

Gosling and Thomas round out the other main actors, and they have their own ordeal going on, separate from Chang. Granted they are in the midst of warfare with the cop, there is a unique problem between the two of them. Refn hammers home the Oedipal theme with Julian and his mother as the audience learns about the many activities that reference the Greek myth. Julian killed his father, the mother makes it aware that Julian’s phallic instrument is smaller than his brothers, and a man even subtly gets his eyes stabbed with pins.

While the references are blatant, it is the absurdness in how they are presented that keeps the film from being weighed down. Some people may be appalled that Gosling’s mama’s boy only gets a handful of lines or that everyone’s favorite heartthrob gets verbally assaulted by his own mother. That is what makes this film so rich. Two actors take on completely different roles and nail them. After the dinner scene in which Julian takes his girlfriend to meet his mother, sweet-ol’ Kristin Scott Thomas delivers a horrific nickname that will make anyone think twice about bringing home a significant other.

This film will not leave you feeling good. It is a glimpse into Hell and the people who occupy it. However, mixing the high and low of the beauty and grace in the direction with the horror and sickness of the characters creates a mash-up that cannot go unwatched. Refn delivers on making some pure, movie acid, and Only God Forgives takes the audience on one wild trip.

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