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Only God Forgives

June 1, 2014

Only God Forgives (2013)
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Actors: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm

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Synopsis: American expat, Julian (Ryan Gosling), who runs a Thai boxing club and illicit drug ring in Bangkok, is forced into a quest for revenge when his brother Billy is brutally murdered. Muddying the waters somewhat is that Billy had himself killed a prostitute just before his own demise, so the Chief of Police who ordered Billy’s death, Lt Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), is a dangerous, ‘avenging angel’ in his own right, and Julian’s crazy mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok to make things even more complicated….

Review: Only God Forgives is all aesthetic. And while I can forgive, and even champion, cinema that favours the sensual, the atmospheric, the propulsive, there just crucially isn’t any rapture in Winding Refn’s method – it’s all mediocre conceit. And again, it’s not that I’m offended by nihilism or violence per se (I love the work of Gaspar Noé for example), but there’s a vainglorious gratuity to the gory scenes in Only God Forgives that make them, whisper it quietly…a touch boring.

In many respects, Only God Forgives reminded me very much of the feeling I was left with after Winding Refn’s previous film, Drive. As mentioned in my piece on that film, I saw it best as an intentional/unintentional (take your pick) satire of American movie staples (cars, violence, neon, family sentimentality), and again here the work feels like an inadvertent pastiche to me – almost like the work of Winding Refn’s countryman, Lars von Trier, holding up a mirror to western cinema’s own valorisation of all things sexy and violent, but pushed to their bourgeois-bating extremes. The only difference here being that Winding Refn seems earnestly enraptured by the artifice of his method, where as von Trier is much more canny and full of greater DIY theatricality and ingenuity. (May 2014)

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