What’s the biggest take away from this Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film? Only God Forgives, accented in a red hue and presenting Ryan Gosling in his most stoic role to date, is as subversive of expectations as a film could be. While audiences were divided by Drive (with members of the critical community adoring its stylistic flourishes while others bemoaned that a picture called Drive featured so little driving), Only God Forgives seems to exist to alienate audiences entirely. Brooding, cynical, violent, and overwhelmingly dire, Only God Forgives may not be the feel good hit of the summer, but it happens to be the most viscerally compelling film of the year.
Comparisons to Drive need to be made in so far as distinguishing how different Only God Forgives turns out to be. Whereas Drive functions as an Earthly concoction, Only God Forgives is shrouded in a deep surrealist fog. With Drive there was a general sense of what moments existed as part of the film’s narrative and which scenes existed as a means of a dreamscape. Only God Forgives’ spatial movement resists conventional editing - every instance of death is followed by a jarring transition that can rarely be explained. And with death and suffering essentially providing the red tint that illuminates Only God Forgives, so much of the film’s surrealist qualities register as a descent into Hell.
Thematically, the film is something of a mix of oedipal complexes and gender politics. Refn hammers in much of the bizarre sexual politics through Kristen Scott Thomas’ character – who also happens to contribute about 90% of the film’s dialogue. The film’s scant plotting doesn’t mean much to the overall feel of the picture, which is so knee-deep in smut it’s hard to believe I responded to it positively at all. But critical to Only God Forgives’ success is its pulsating imagery and subversive gender imagery. It’s particularly interesting to see it as a treatment of Ryan Gosling’s celebrity. The proverbial heartthrob sees himself emasculated even as he attempts to flex his own masculinity. The repeated imagery of Gosling’s open palm forming a fist becomes an important symbolic event as his character attempts to achieve manhood. And it’s no small coincidence that his character only lands a blow when slapping his opponent, not punching. Of course, all my praise of Refn’s style and symbolism means little if the film didn’t have a kinetic wallop. And while my audience didn’t take too keenly to the picture (an audible snore was heard during one of the film’s quieter moments), Only God Forgives never yielded its feverish hold on me.