Only God Forgives in Refn’s Most Ambitious Use of Mise-En-Scene

Only God Forgives Poster

Only God Forgives Poster

TitleOnly God Forgives
Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller
Director(s)Nicolas Winding Refn
Release Year2013

We saw it in DriveValhalla RisingBronson, and even a little bit in Fear X; how Nicolas Winding Refn incorporates the backgrounds and visuals of his movies into the actual telling of the plot is almost too obvious. Neon colors and the pounding of Martinez’s score (and second-time collaboration with Refn) echo throughout Only God Forgives and tell the story more so than the actual characters. With another stellar cast and a second dive into the Gosling well, Nicolas Winding Refn wears thin from its shallow plot and excruciatingly slow-moving pace. Only God Forgives winds up feeling more like Refn burying himself in excess pretentiousness; that same pretentious style that he balanced expertly with his last three films. He does not go so far as to create a bad movie, but he goes into all his stylistic flourishes in order to create a film of excess, and ultimately one that feels way too polished for its own good.

There is a plot in Only God Forgives, despite its many lulls which almost made me forget what the film was about. Gosling returns to the screen as Julian, the owner of a Thai boxing ring. When his brother Billy (Tom Burke) is killed, their vicious mother Crystal, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, visits Julian seeking vengeance against the men who killed her son. The man that is ultimately responsible for Billy’s death is played by Vithaya Pansringarm, who just happens to be a police officer with the rest of the police seemingly completely at his disposal. Now you have all the plot you need to create a blood-soaked revenge tale that can utilize all of Refn’s talent as a director. If the narrative (and characters) didn’t move as slowly as they did, there might have been something more to the story. Characters are well-portrayed, and intentions are anything but transparent, but they can only do so much for a movie that gives up on plot several times in the film in exchange for characters singing and long-winded build-ups to climaxes that never occur.

Wanna fight? Well, we're gonna spend 3 minutes watching Gosling rolls up his sleeves first.

Wanna fight? Well, we’re gonna spend 3 minutes watching Gosling roll up his sleeves first.

Character development is clearly the strong suit of Refn, though, and Only God Forgives is no exception to that. By far the most interesting aspect of  the film is its main character, Julian (Gosling). Held hostage by his mother’s (Thomas) psychotic persona, Julian is constantly met with disapproval, regardless of how moral his decision. Selfless would be a basic descriptor for Gosling’s character, but his stoic performance demands a different interpretation. The moments when he finds himself expressive is when he sees his mother glaring at him, and this forces him into action. A character completely reliant on the acceptance of his mother, emotions swell up inside Julian and very rarely do they reach the surface. Through the introduction of Crystal, we see Julian in a completely different light. But inside, he is a decent guy. It is his mother’s influence on him that has shaped him into the person we see.

To say that Gosling is able to play a character with minimal expressions that say a lot more than they seem, is nothing new. High praise is warranted, but his inexpressive, yet highly emotional performances are getting dangerously close to generic. If it works, it works, and Refn is masterfully able to create something engaging out of what isn’t said. The actor who gets to chew the scenery is Kristin Scott Thomas. Where Gosling talks little, Thomas does the opposite, and that sometimes ends up hurting the film. She plays selfish and conniving so well, but some of her dialogue falls flat because of how didactic it feels with what is happening on screen. Finally, Pansringarm, who carries a very god-like presence on screen, delivers an even more expressionless face than Gosling’s character, and speaks about the same amount of dialogue. His performance is spot-on, and displays a man who is capable of anything.

The ultimate mother from Hell.

The ultimate mother from Hell.

The problems with Only God Forgives come from some of the stylistic choices made by Refn. Long scenes of Pansringarm singing on stage, and characters being muted so that Martinez’s score can alleviate you of too much dialogue feel like poor decisions on Refn’s part. Not because they’re not well-done, but because they interrupt scenes as opposed to complementing them. The jarring editing creates a sense of disconnect from the atmosphere of the film. The mise-en-scene of the film might as well be the focal point of everything because it becomes extremely overbearing and it’s clear how much Refn is utilizing it as a substitute for dialogue. But then there are aspects which really work, such as the score and some of the cinematography (the pivotal boxing sequence is shot and edited with a great balance of style and precision). Cliff Martinez once again delivers an exceptional score to add to his achievements over the past couple years such as Drive and Spring Breakers, which both had memorable accomplishments in music. Only God Forgives is a lot more energetic, but just as dark as those scores, bringing about both ethereal and eerie soundscapes. And the cinematography by Larry Smith is just as important to the film as it was to his previous collaboration with Refn in Bronson. The blues and reds of the film are prevalent but never too obtrusive, and with the mise-en-scene being so crucial to the movie, Smith’s cinematography can hardly go unnoticed.

Those stylistic choices ultimately lead to a film that sometimes has a hard time finding its footing in terms of tone. While the movie generally carries a very brooding atmosphere, there are many moments when humor is injected into the film when it really doesn’t fit. This really only ever occurs with Thomas’s character, but she isn’t exactly a cameo appearance so it harms the film quite a bit. So while there are excellent performances in Only God Forgives and some technical achievements that cannot be dismissed, there are also an excessive amount of times when it feels like style was more important than substance. The ultra-violence comes off as slightly unwarranted, though there’s an element of control and punishment that is associated with some of the brutal acts, and it becomes apparent how much violence is a character in the film. In fact, Only God Forgives is Nicolas Winding Refn’s most ambitious use of mise-en-scene, and he makes all of the themes, visuals and sounds play off each other to great effect. Unfortunately, they carry the film to the 90-minute mark, not the plot.

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