Only God Forgives (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits Refn's flawed, near masterpiece in glorious HD video...
Julian (Ryan Gosling), a respected figure in the criminal underworld of Bangkok, runs a Thai boxing club and smuggling ring with his brother, Billy. Billy is suddenly murdered and their crime lord matriarch, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives from London to bring back the body. When Jenna forces Julian to settle the score with his brother's killers, Julian finds himself in the ultimate showdown. (From Radius’ official synopsis)
Having missed every single one of the Pusher movies, I joined the Nicolas Winding Refn fan club a bit late. Following my first viewing of his Bronson, however, I found myself addicted to his extraordinarily unique brand of cinema. Of the films I’ve seen, I recognize the director’s love of genre conventions and I delight in the way this love embattles his inherently aggressive and flashily artistic temperaments. On a narrative level, he usually sticks to tropes, embraces clichés, and even embraces forward-moving plot structures (most of his films are reportedly shot in sequence). Yet, despite this apparent admiration for traditional storytelling, Refn doesn’t make conventional movies. In his post- Pusher work I can see the influences of filmmakers, like Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, Michael Mann, working right alongside seemingly incompatible influences, like Bill Lustig, Kenneth Anger, and Tobe Hooper. These films exist in a vacuum where they can be exactly the same and completely different than everything on the shelf next to them. Mainstream audiences attempted to embrace Refn’s sensibilities in 2011 when he made a typical western-cum-gangster flick called Drive. Drive was made within the Hollywood system – on a decent budget (low by Hollywood standards, of course) and with A-level Hollywood talent – but it retained his fetishistic sentiment.
Drive was an incredibly divisive film and rightfully so – it was a weird tone poem that was sold as an action-packed Ryan Gosling vehicle. For better or worse, though, it helped Refn develop something of a pop culture reputation outside of his prominence in the film buff community – a reputation that fans and detractors alike expected him to deliver upon with his next film, Only God Forgives. Despite reuniting with Gosling and Drive composer Cliff Martinez, Only God Forgives is a different kind of film. It certainly covers similar ground, especially in terms of genre mash-up and the two characters Gosling plays in these films having common traits, but it’s not follow-up in the same way Casino is a follow-up to Goodfellas or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is a follow-up to Fistful of Dollars. Sometimes, it even feels like Only God Forgives is satirizing Drive, especially when Refn ramps up the gory violence and extends the already endless sequences of characters silently and intently staring at each other.
Knowing his penchant for the subversive, it’s quite possible that Only God Forgives was made in response to both the good and bad reactions audiences had concerning Drive. Even if he isn’t ‘trolling’ the positive/negative critical/audience responses, there’s definitely an air of an anti- Drive in terms of the production processes. Only God Forgives was shot in a developing country on the other side of the world from Los Angeles, on a significantly smaller budget and with only a single star actor in its repertoire (Kristin Scott Thomas is arguably an A-list star, but she’s almost entirely unrecognizable in the part). Refn shoots each film in a similarly studious and controlled manner, but Only God Forgives uses limited locations and much of it feels shot on the fly – one assumes he didn’t have to close off any streets in Thailand, nor did he need permits for every exterior shot. Other evidence points to Only God Forgives as the delayed follow-up to Refn’s surrealistic Viking parable, Valhalla Rising (2009). Apparently, the only thing that kept the two films from being made/released in a row was Gosling personal request that the director to shoot Drive first. But, even without this anecdotal evidence, the stylistic and thematic similarities between Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives are difficult to ignore. Both films are religious-themed parables that blend arthouse aesthetics with super gory violence and minimal story. Refn has even implied that Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the tireless and silent force of justice that dogs Julian’s family, might be a reincarnation of Valhalla Rising’s unstoppable killing machine, One-Eye (played by television’s Hannibal Lecter, Mads Milkinsen). At the very least, both characters can be interpreted as representations of God’s wrath.
Also like Valhalla Rising, Only God Forgives is simplified on a narrative level to the point that the plot is beside the point of the exercise – themes and impressions take precedence. Refn does fix his focus on his major characters, but refuses to give anyone any substantial dialogue – except Crystal, who spends more time hurling lurid and cruel insults than exposition. Entire exchanges are filmed without sound (or rather, the sound has been deleted, as composer Cliff Martinez even verifies during the disc’s special features), but Refn has enough faith in his visual storytelling to assume we’ll understand the progression of what was said. Most of the characters are presented as mythological impressions of human beings, except Julian. The audience experiences his sadness, anger, desire, and fear through visual representations of imagined scenarios (many of which we don’t know aren’t reality as they’re happening). Refn also inter-cuts and contrasts Julian’s perspectives with Crystal’s and Chang’s, implying that his antagonists are haunting him. The film’s horrifying, incendiary violence was another bone of contention with many critics, but the violence fits the standard of the film’s studied and garish tone. Only God Forgives is certainly guilty of committing to style over substance, but, in confronting this frustrating lack of content, we are numbed to logic and forced to create our own content. Or not. Maybe there is no greater meaning or purpose beyond the mesmerizing photography and music. Refn himself has said he just wanted to make a western in an eastern location, so perhaps his artistic idiosyncrasies overwhelmed his desired modesty.
Only God Forgives was shot using Arri Alexa and Red Epic digital HD cameras and is presented here in 1.85:1, 1080p video. Refn’s post- Bronson films have all featured a thematic use of saturated colour. Valhalla Rising used nearly monochromatic sequences to express violence, while Drive was lit like an episode of Miami Vice on acid. Only God Forgives splits the difference with an occasionally monochromatic, neon-baked palette that threatens to burn the corneas from the viewers’ eye sockets. It might be the most aggressively saturated, non-animated film I’ve ever seen shot without four-strip Technicolor. The hi-res, digital photography allows the hyper-consistent and hyper-vivid hues to cut against each other when Refn and cinematographer Larry Smith (who actually hasn’t worked with Refn since Bronson) require sharp lines for layering, but is also just as effective when blending softer edges, creating secondary and tertiary colours in the place of some of the shadows and highlights. This is done with minimal noise in the overlap or notable banding effects. The daylight sequences are overwhelmed with softer and more eclectic tones and, in turn, more fine detail and patterns. Here, the edges are just as crisp, but the busier frame is the contrasts are more subtle and the overall image is something closer to what videophiles tend to expect from the format. Though, again, I’m more impressed with the pristine and even patterns that appear along the darker, more vibrant scenes. Black levels are just as immaculate as the colours, especially the dragon motifs that line the walls of the Muay Thai training facility.
The first time I saw Only God Forgives, I had the good fortune of experiencing it in a particularly loud theater, where Cliff Martinez’ unbelievably cool synthesizer score vibrated the seats and walls around me. Martinez’ music is such an indelible and unforgettable part of the film that it’s hard to remember any other sound occurring on this powerful DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. There’s so little dialogue and effects work that it often feels as if you’re viewing a long-form music video and that the film wouldn’t lose much if all the non-musical sound was deleted (aside from Scott Thomas’ wonderfully vile speeches, of course). The music is mostly remembered as electronic in nature, but also includes stereo-rattling taiko drums, LFE bursting organ, layered strings, and a lot of surreal industrial noise, similar to the kind of thing David Lynch used for Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. Of course, Martinez’ score isn’t the only music the track is left to deal with; there’s also the matter of Lt. Chang’s post-punishment karaoke laments. These scenes are similarly loud, but the on-screen, source sound has a nice round, echoing quality. There are rare moments where music or dialogue don’t defining the track, like the opening sequence in Julian’s Muay Thai club. Here, the roar of the crowd wraps around the room and undercuts the wet slap of fists hitting bodies. Later, the heavy patter of rain douses the speakers and the soft, subtle chirp of cicadas echo throughout the rear channels during daylight hours. On the more aggressive side is the film’s single shoot-out, which unleashes a torrent of gunfire, worthy of any big-budget action flick.
The extras begin with a commentary from Refn and film critic Damon Wise. I really didn’t want to listen to this track and probably wouldn’t have if I wasn’t reviewing the disc. This isn’t because I don’t think Refn isn’t an incredibly interesting speaker – because he always is – it’s because I was so afraid he and Wise would explain to me exactly why I loved the movie so much. Worried that I’d need more time to parse the material before I could approach the track, I decided to take a sampling for this write-up, hoping to summarize the tone and content type for readers. From what I sampled I was able to gather that Wise acts as something of an interviewer, who coaxes meaning, anecdotal evidence, and flowery analogies (‘If Drive is like cocaine, Only God Forgives is like acid’) out of the director. Refn is open to discussion, but doesn’t necessarily give everything away while discussing the film. Perhaps best for the people like me that don’t want to be ‘spoiled,’ Refn and Wise are both occasionally open to multiple interpretations of the material and tends to focus on the director’s thought process more than the specific meanings. There’s also plenty of information regarding the technical and logistical problems, along with otherwise unobtainable tidbits, like the meaning of the lyrics Chang sings during karaoke.
Up next is a two-part interview with Refn (12:10, HD). In the first part he discusses the film’s strange reality, Gosling’s performance, and shooting on location in Thailand with Mark Dinning. In the second part, he discusses theatricality, making movies outside of the mainstream, and subverting genre filmmaking with Bruno Icher. Up next is The Music of Only God Forgives with Cliff Martinez (9:10, HD), a cordial interview with the composer, who discusses his full career and his relationship with Refn throughout Drive and Only God Forgives.
The disc is wrapped up with a twelve-part, raw footage, behind-the-scenes featurette (23:30, HD) with descriptive chapter titles, like:
- The Drug Trade
- Staging the Brothel Scene -
- Framing the Gun Fight
- The Sword You Execute People With
- Slicing the Arm
- Prepping for the Shootout
- The Sincrest Form of Flattery
- A Face for Radio
- On the Sets with Refn
- The Tongue
- Kendo Techniques
- Violence is Like Sex
Only God Forgives might end up being my favourite film of 2013, but, even after seeing it two times (one half more time with commentary) and mulling over this review for days on end, I’m still not exactly sure why. The best I can arrive at is that its narrative simplicity and lethargic imagery creates the best canvas for director Nicolas Winding Refn’s visual perfection. It’s certainly not a film with a lot of wide audience appeal, but that’s far from a prerequisite for subjective quality. Questions concerning the film’s quality aside, Only God Forgives may have become my new go-to demo disc. The hallucinatory images look impeccable and Cliff Martinez’ hypnotizing score is a room-filling, smooth, and boisterous experience. The extras include an info-packed director’s commentary, two solid (but short) interviews, and a decent collection of fly-on-the-wall-style behind-the-scenes featurettes.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 22nd October 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English/Thai
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Director and Critic Commentary, Director Interview, The Music of Only God Forgives with Cliff Martinez, Behind-the-Scenes Footage, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Ratha Phongam, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke
Genre: Crime, Drama, Film-Noir and Thriller
Length: 90 minutes
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