Intensity. Lots of films attempt to exploit a sensation of intensity, using it to create an affective emotion within the audience. However, to experience a film like Only God Forgives is to experience intensity as a pure art form. Quite simply, Only God Forgives is not only the best film of the year; it is a modern masterpiece of almost unsurpassed beauty and raw physicality.

The film’s narrative is Shakespearean in its rich palette of tragedy, violence, flawed humanity laid bare, and depiction of crumbling family empires. This is a world of intense passions; a film noir so dark that even the blinding neon lights seem to cling to the bones of the dark, looming with malevolence as pervasive and ubiquitous as death. The extreme layered into every image; the frame quivering under the weight of both the visual expression of emotion, and the energy of the characters at the heart of the film, who at once can move through spaces like ghosts, before suddenly piercing through the punctum of the image, destabilising the audience with a ferocity that makes the very film seem to react like a boxer reeling under the weight of a crippling blow.

Only God Forgives is dominated by two central figures, bound together by a brutal crime that spawns an even more grisly retaliation: Ryan Gosling’s Julian, a tormented drug dealer who has retreated to Bangkok, and Vithaya Pansringarm’s Chang, an angel of vengeance who delivers swift justice to those who revel in sin. Ryan Gosling is phenomenal as Julian; in his iconic role of the Driver in Refn’s mesmeric Drive, he already displayed the ability to channel both an intense sense of tender vulnerability and a burning rage, expressing these disparate facets through a gentle glance or deep stare. Here, in the even more emotionally and psychologically complex figure of Julian, Gosling perfects this uncanny ability to express the subtle nuances of his character’s internal psychology; a man who has been damaged by a disturbing relationship with his mother, unable to articulate the turmoil and emotions that have coalesced and festered in his soul.

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However, while Gosling has never been better, the film belongs to Pansringarm. Rarely has such an unassuming figure been transformed, through the power of performance, narrative and visual construction, into a force of nature that tears through the film. He is a cobra, always ready to strike with precise fury. All Pansringarm has to do to dominate the scene, is enter it…and that is a testament to his astonishing physicality. He also imbues the character with surprising emotional range. While his actions are brutal and cold, his eyes are deep with sensitive emotion, which he channels through Karaoke, the emotional outlet Julian lacks. Chang and Julian are the calm centre of this world, and the slow burn the audience experiences as they await the inevitable clash of these most dangerous, tormented men, is gripping. When they finally meet, Refn delivers one of the most affective and powerful sequences of the film…and of the year.

Kristen Scott Thomas delivers the film’s other stand out performance, as Julian’s manipulative and controlling mother, Crystal. Thomas plays her with searing venom that burns through the screen; cruel, racist, devious, and utterly reprehensible, she is something of a modern Lady Macbeth, twisted by Oedipal yearning and a brutality that transforms her femininity into something as sharp as a harpy’s claw. When she shares the screen with Gosling, the chemistry is overwhelming; it is almost hard to watch, such is the level of intensity, but it hypnotic and beautifully defines, without overstatement, Crystal’s role in Julian’s damaged personality, and the unreachable distance between the two.

Cliff Martinez, as he previously delivered in the 80’s electro-tinged score for Drive that played with the contrast between reality and fantasy, channels a sound that plays with the tension between uncontrolled violence and a tenderness of the soul that these characters are painfully unable to express. The dark sounds accentuate and deepen the intense tone of the film, working in perfect harmony with the sensational vision of existential suffering in a Bangkok descending into hell.

If the Devil is in the detail, then (in the words of Julian’s brother), prepare to meet the devil.  In style, Refn’s vision is a furious fusion of Peckinpah, Carpenter and Noe, able to both delicately express the inner demons and complexities of male psychology, and distort the senses with a dizzying beauty, all captured with a mastery of rhythm, existential expression and an eye for the iconic image. No director feels as exciting, visually spectacular and relentlessly sensual in today’s cinema; Only God Forgives sees him unleashed with a poise and fury that stimulates senses with a soft touch and a brutal affect. This is a film that takes the breath away; you feel it…every whisper and every punishing, crunching blow. The violence, in an age that throws excess in our faces for the sake of sensationalism, is extreme and affective. Refn’s ability to juxtapose the subtle and unseen with moments of vivid, almost hyper real gore, delivered using practical effects rather than glossy but overly artificial CGI, creates an impression of violence that marks the film, and holds a physicality that resonates and disturbs in a way that is pure exploitation cinema at its most artistically bold.

Indeed, this sense of tactility is another crucial element to the impact of Only God Forgives, in particular through the physicality of Julian’s body. Refn focuses upon Julian’s hands throughout the film; his vulnerability when they are tied as he watches Mai touch herself, so close and yet so far from the object he tenderly desires; their destructive potential, as Gosling pulls his fingers tightly into a coiled fist, shaking with ferocious energy. This is the image that defines the character; unable to articulate his internal desires in any form other than the orgasmic release of physical violence, reinforcing the poetic juxtaposition between emotional sensitivity and pure savage violence throughout the film.

Only God Forgives is like a raw, exposed nerve, twitching and quivering in a delicate balance between beauty and horror. It is a stunning decent into a fever dream of tactility, beauty and the relentless turmoil of the human soul. A dance of subtly and excess, Only God Forgives is a brutal masterpiece that reinforces Refn’s position as one of the most vital and interesting directors of our time.

About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980’s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: mattpaul61@o2.co.uk