SELDOM has a film ever relied upon just framing to create and project characters but that is exactly what Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives does.
The film’s main character Julian played by Winding Refn’s Drive collaborator Ryan Gosling speaks a total of just 17 lines. The dialogue is sparser than that of Drive.
But if any director has the capability and frankly the balls to attempt such a feat, it is Winding Refn. The Dane utilises a voyeuristic through the keyhole framing, for the character of Julian. At times you’re left wondering whether the film has switched to a 4:3 ratio.
The disequilibrium occurs not when Julian’s brother is killed, but with the arrival of his mother Crystal, who wants her youngest son to avenge the death of his older brother, at the hands of Lieutenant Chang or the Angel of Vengeance as he is known.
Crystal a widowed mob matriarch is played brilliantly by Kristin Scott Thomas, in what is a truly terrifying turn – with echoes of Lady Macbeth.
One scene in particular where she chastises Julian in front of his lady friend, for being too weak and not exacting vengeance on the killers of his brother.
Being the first film that Winding Refn and Gosling have done together since Drive, comparisons are inevitably going to be plentiful. But comparing this to Drive is akin to comparing a polar bear to its grizzly counterpart.
For example the Gosling “stare” is used extensively, but doesn’t really take precedence like it does in Drive where well it literally drives the film.
Only God Forgives is highly stylised to the point where the characters sometimes verge on the point of not mattering, there’s a particular sequence where hit men are being paid to take out Vithaya Pansringarm’s Lieutenant Chang. There’s a dubby synth score provided by the man responsible for the pulsating Drive score Cliff Martinez, you’d think it was a Miami Vice episode on steroids.
The composition is sparse, but there are brief interludes where Martinez bursts into life, as offsetting as the flashing neon lights of the seedy underworld upon which Only God Forgives is set, although admittedly certain cues feel like they’ve dropped off Drive.
Despite the names on the marquee and the actual content it’s a film that isn’t going to give a huge return at the box office.
The violence maligns this film like the stench of corruption maligned Nixon post-Watergate. It’s gruesome, death reeks and this film reeks of death.
It was booed and applauded in equal measure at Cannes and has polarised opinion in the vacuum of social media.
But you couldn’t accuse it of bordering on poor taste, after all we’re not talking Michael Bay here.
By the time we reach the bare knuckle brawl between Chang and Julian, Winding Refn has ingeniously given the three main characters, Julian, Chang and Crystal their own screen aura with just his framing.
Only God Forgives is a directorial master class in character framing. But the bloody violence and obtuse atmosphere may put off punters.