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Saturday, November 2, 2013

DVD Review: Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives is a very cool, intriguing, definitely strange and at times mesmerizing film starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm. The film takes place in Bangkok, where Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a boxing club. He, his brother and their associates are involved in some shady businesses, leading to a confrontation with the police.

Julian’s older brother Billy goes out looking for a prostitute. Several of the women are standing in windows, but they are too old for him. He asks the proprietor for a fourteen-year-old girl. The proprietor refuses to indulge him, and so Billy beats him, then goes in after the girls. It’s creepy and quick. He then finds another prostitute and kills her.

The police come in, and find Billy still there. This, like many scenes in the film, is done without dialogue. The film relies on reaction shots, interesting lighting and shadows, as well as a good score to get across much of the story. A lot of the scenes are dominated by red and/or blue lights. For example, the opening shots of Julian are all in red. And then when a deal is going down, we see the characters’ eyes well lit, but the rest of their faces in shadow.

Anyway, one policeman calls in the girl’s father, and tells him to do what he wants, then leaves him in the room with Billy. Again, the dialogue is sparse. So much is done with glances and shadows. And the violence that ensues is shown in silhouette in front of a red light from down the hall.

Julian meanwhile is in a red room of his own. He is seated, perfectly still, and a beautiful woman comes in and wordlessly begins tying his arms to the chair. She then masturbates in front of him, while he watches silently. It’s intense, due largely to the fact that there is no dialogue whatsoever in the scene. That is, until a man arrives to tell Julian that his brother is dead.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Crystal, Julian’s mother, and her character’s introduction is excellent. First of all, this scene is the first starkly lit scene, in harsh daylight tones. She stands perfectly still (just as Julian was seated) at the check-in counter of a hotel. The receptionist informs her that her room will not be ready until four. Instead of arguing, Crystal calmly and coldly tells her she will speak with the manager. When he arrives, she says, “I have just traveled ten thousand miles to see the corpse of my first-born son. I haven’t slept in thirty hours. And this bitch says I can’t have my room.” The next shot is her in her room.

Kristin Scott Thomas is always excellent, and in this film we see something new from her. It took me a moment to even recognize her.

Julian questions the man who killed his brother, asking who hired him. Interestingly, we don’t hear the man’s response, but rather the film’s score. And we see Julian’s reaction. It isn’t until later when Julian talks with his mother that we learn he let the man go. Crystal is angry with Julian, and tells him she’ll take care of the killer herself. She demands a kiss, and Julian kisses her on the cheek, then lights her cigarette. It’s a really uncomfortable moment, made even more so when she strokes his arm with one finger, Julian’s face turned away from camera and away from her. Because he is faced away from us, we can only imagine what he is feeling, which puts us more firmly in his uncomfortable place.

This film is so adept at that. It also lets us in on a character’s thoughts by cutting from one character to another character who may not be present, but whose presence is felt clearly and intensely. This is done at times with the cop who becomes entangled in the lives of Julian and Crystal.  That character, in fact, is one of the most interesting in any film I’ve seen in a while. There is something mystical about him. He seems apart from the law, though with the complete support and respect of the other policemen.

By the way, at times this film is absolutely gorgeous. Though it doesn’t refrain from being brutal too. There is at least one intensely gruesome scene. Sure, there are a few awkward moments, like when Julian asks the cop, “Wanna fight?” But most of this film is completely engrossing.

Only God Forgives was written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, who also directed Drive.

Bonus Features

The DVD contains lots of bonus material, including a commentary track by writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn, moderated by Damon Wise. Refn describes Drive as good cocaine, and Only God Forgives as strong acid. He talks about the film’s imagery, and about the casting of Kristin Scott Thomas. He says that he told her he wanted to use her because she had done Four Weddings And A Funeral, and that it was her idea to have long blond hair in the film.

There are also two short interviews with the director. In the first, he talks about finding locations and not having to build any sets. He also talks about the mentality of Asia, and he admits to a supernatural element to the film regarding Chang (the cop character). In the second interview, he says the first idea regarding this film was a man looking at his hands. He also says that originally there was going to be a lot more dialogue. Interestingly, he says, “I always wanted to make important films, but I realized I didn’t have that in me.” Each of these interviews is approximately six minutes.

The bonus material includes a good amount of behind-the-scenes footage (approximately twenty-three minutes worth). We see the Refn giving direction to the actors regarding the drug deal scene, and also some footage of the shooting of exterior shots. They were right at the edge of a street, and not holding traffic. We also see Refn setting up the shots for the gunfight scene. One thing I appreciate about this footage is that they just let it play, without heavily editing it, so you feel you’re really getting a sense of what the production was like.

There is also a segment on the music of the film, with an interview with composer Cliff Martinez. He talks about how Refn places more significance on music and sound than other directors do, and how in a way Only God Forgives is almost a silent film. The most interesting thing for me is his explanation of the scene where Billy’s killer talks to Julian but we don’t hear the dialogue. Apparently, that was not intended. The actor kept mispronouncing words, and so they couldn’t use the dialogue, and the director had to rely on Martinez to tell the story with music. (Interestingly, his explanation is a bit different from that which the director gives in the commentary.) This segment is approximately nine minutes.

Only God Forgives was released on DVD and Blu-ray on October 22, 2013 through Anchor Bay Entertainment.

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