Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013)

It’s no secret that sensationalized violence is Nicolas Winding Refn’s trademark, a majority of his features showcasing this attribute wholeheartedly while still managing to engage via an equally palpable unparalleled visual quality. Although early marketing efforts suggested that Only God Forgives would be a worthy successor to my favorite film of 2011, my hesitance in ogling the finished product – spawned from the film’s widespread polarization – almost shook me. Having inevitably followed through with my initial anticipatory urge, it was made abundantly clear to me that Refn’s latest is nothing more than a beautiful disaster, reveling in all its awkward and uneven minimalism with a periodic mean streak that lacks the artistic sensibilities it thinks it sports.

Over time, Only God Forgives‘ base narrative evolved to the point where the general public had an understanding of what exactly was to happen throughout – an American drug smuggler living in Thailand is coaxed into avenging his brother’s death, even though said sibling is a pedophile prone to fits of murderous rape. Put plainly, what you’ve heard is all you’ll get, the script’s purposeful sparseness allowing for Refn’s color-drenched and gorgeously composition-heavy aesthetic to dominate the production. Yes, the violence is shocking not just for its gratuitousness, but for its unannounced prevalence whenever a victim is front-and-center. Even still, Refn hones Only God Forgives‘ few strong suits, employing them frequently enough to at least hold one’s interest.

Where the film officially and irreversibly goes south is when it delves a bit too deeply into the realm of the unnecessarily cryptic  and avant-garde, Julian’s (Ryan Gosling) visions of his own dismemberment among other things ringing a bit too self-important in the grand scheme of things despite their latter act relevance. It is, however, interesting if obvious to learn of Julian’s troubled past and why his peculiar devotion to his mother trumps the strained, toxic dynamic between them, what with the barely recognizable substance this presents still becoming negligible as events continue to unfold.

All things considered, I honestly haven’t felt this torn about a film in quite some time. While Only God Forgives very blatantly soars in the realm of the aesthetically inclined thanks to Refn’s proclivity for exploiting cinema as a tangible art form, it’s the intention to flaunt but not excel in the use of overbearing, experimental minimalism that’s the director’s latest’s downfall. The violence is appropriate and forgivable and events unfold as you’d expect them to, although all of Only God Forgives‘ intended tactlessness doesn’t quite add up to one satisfyingly deplorable whole.


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