Only God Forgives – a highly controversial indie bombshell

WHEN Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling first collaborated with acclaimed Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, we were given Drive. Drive is a smooth yet brutal noir-inspired tale.

The story depicts a nameless driver and stuntman that will go to any lengths to protect his love interest from across the hall. The film was received warmly by audiences and critics alike, and left us all begging for more of the same.

Little was known about the duo’s newest collaboration this year when it hit the indie circuit with a minimal release, with European funding and a claim it was much more of a true indie film.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a quiet and subdued man running the family business, an underground drugs ring disguised as a boxing club in Bangkok, Thailand. One night Julian’s clearly disturbed brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and murders an underage prostitute. The police find Billy, as the corrupt and seemingly god-like Lt.Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) convinces the prostitute’s father to brutally murder Billy the same way, as some perverse form of justice. He then dismembers the man, removing his hand with a katana. Hearing of her son’s death, Julian’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) flies out of Bangkok to settle family affairs once and for all. The demanding and foul mother of the family attempts to kill Lt. Chang, leaving Julian to fight a moral battle within himself as he questions his choice of lifestyle.

As you might expect, the film is not so much about story, and primarily uses it to set the tone for a brutal morality tale taking place in the seedy and grotesque underbelly of Bangkok. Refn’s use of visuals and visuality in the film are truly breathtaking. Many sequences involving Julian are nightmarish dreams, cloaked in darkness with a morbid tint of neon fluorescence. You could say the film draws from film-noir much like Drive, with almost every scene cloaked in night with a characterising glow of colour, here or there. The settings also help the whole tone, with the hotel being full of opulent furnishings, grand decorations and luxuries, but ultimately the whole thing’s rather sinister and quite tainted.

Also of note, is Ryan Gosling’s performance along with Kristin Scott Thomas. Once again we see Gosling relive the quiet loner role, as a man of few words clearly repressed under the emasculating grip of his mother. Gosling broods, boxes, and is beaten to a bloody pulp in Only God Forgives, all the while maintaining a Marlon Brando-esque charm that’ll drive him to major success, and Oscar gold one day. Although, the most shocking performance comes from Kristin Scott Thomas. Known for her comedic and romantic roles from the likes of The English Patient, and Four Weddings and a Funeral, Thomas’s appearance is quite surreal. That being said it works to a tee, with the demanding and corrupt godmother type figure proving to be quite effective.

A lot of the sour reactions, and over-exaggerated reviews of Only God Forgives, are mainly in response to its heavily violent content (that we should probably be used to by now) and its fairly explicit dialogue. More simply put, people expected something like Drive, something more safe, not this highly controversial indie bombshell. Drive was more of a Gosling film, while in this it’s more of Refn’s territory, the underground crime film with some subversive twists.

Regardless of the bad reviews, poor reception, and universally mixed reactions, I personally can’t give Only God Forgives enough praise. Unique, refreshing, and incredibly interesting are words I’d associate with it, words I can’t attach to almost every other film I’ve seen this year. Don’t let its bizarre nature, or highly different content scare you, because this is one film not to be missed.

Check out Only God Forgives  at Aberystwyth Arts Centre – on between the 3rd-6th September. Click here for more details.