Minimalist Cinema: “Only God Forgives”

Winding Refn & Gosling
Nicolas Winding Refn & Ryan Gosling on location

There’s very little dialogue and very little story. It’s simple, yet it’s not simple. It’s the most recent film from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, the writer/director that brought you Drive, Valhalla Rising, Bronson, and the Pusher trilogy. If Winding Refn is not a name that you recognize now, you will soon. He’s been writing and directing films for close to 20 years and he’s gradually cementing himself as an auteur. However, his cinema is not for everyone. It’s gruesome, brutal, and violent, yet it offers movie-goers a choice between high octane summer blockbusters or art-house minimalism. Whatever it is, Only God Forgives is different and it deserves attention.

Only God Forgives is about Julian (Ryan Gosling), an American living in Bangkok, Thailand. He operates and owns a Muy Thai boxing facility that trains teenagers to fight. However, below the surface Julian’s a drug smuggler and dealer, along with his older brother, Billy. One night, Billy rapes and murders a sixteen-year-old prostitute. The prostitute’s father arrives on the scene and is allowed by the police to enact his own brand of justice, killing Billy. So, all scores are settled, right? Billy is punished for his crime and so is the father for allowing his daughter to become a prostitute. But what about Billy’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas)? Shouldn’t she be allowed her own brand of justice when she learns that her eldest son is killed? She expects Julian to “take care of business”, but Julian is much too smart to go starting a blood feud, so she’ll handle things herself, or get someone else to handle it, and then totally fuck things up.

vithaya pansringarm
Judge, jury, and executioner. The man in black. Death incarnate.

It’s a simple plot. A vengeance story that we’ve seen in a number of gangster films before. But it’s Winding Refn’s aesthetic that makes it so interesting. Every shot is carefully handled and every nuance from the actors strictly directed. There is no witty, wiseguy banter between these gangsters. Sometimes there’s no dialogue at all, just an exchange of looks. It’s simple visual storytelling. A minimalist film. Some might call it boring, while others might call it brilliant.

I’ve heard that the film was booed at Cannes and that critics are divided between praising it and hating it, but to hell with those people (and to hell with what I think too). Go out and see it for yourself, but don’t say that I didn’t warn you. The action is unforgiving: blood squirts from open wounds and limbs are severed, but not for no apparent reason. I think that those people who see the film and return saying, “What was that all about?” prefer an explanation at the end of a movie, but you won’t be getting it here. The theme is all right there. It’s just below the surface, creeping underneath your skin. You must read between the lines. God may forgive your sins, but he does not.

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