As part of the financing for Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn committed to making a second movie. That second movie was Only God Forgives, a nearly silent film starring Ryan Gosling, relying heavily on a steady electronic score from composer Cliff Martinez. Drive was a slick car thriller from the director, marking him as a hot name to follow in cinematic circles. Only God Forgives is a violent and bizarre tale, set in the gritty underbelly of Bangkok. Refn realizes his story is a bit flimsy and overcompensates by lavishing it with stylistic excess, making Only God Forgives a joyless viewing experience.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) is living in Bangkok with his brother, Billy. Julian runs a Muay Thai boxing club as a front for his family’s drug business. Billy is in an intoxicated haze when he rapes and kills a local 16-year-old girl. The girl’s father and a menacing policeman, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), hunt down and murder Billy for his crimes. Julian’s mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, flies to Bangkok looking for revenge and demands that Julian kill the two men. It becomes a contest of wills between Billy’s family and the deadly Chang as the sides repeatedly clash until the ultimate outcome.
Only God Forgives uses very little dialogue. It is told in sound and images more than coherent dialogue. Much of the above plot could be missed if one’s attention span dulls for a moment. Some scenes feel like an eternity in developing, as the direction pulls out every cinematographic trick possible to tell the narrative in wordless form. Dream-like lighting, long tracking shots, and a pulsing score make Only God Forgives feel like a bad Acid trip. Most viewers will feel helpless as to what is happening in the first act, as very little explanation is given for the events until later. The viewer is expected to sit back and absorb the experience. It is not a success, as the extended scenes often feel like a music video in slow motion.
Ignoring strange subplots like the hints of incest in Julian’s family, Only God Forgives might have worked better as a violent action-thriller with a more fleshed-out narrative and less flashy cinematic tricks. How Kristin Scott Thomas, an actress mostly known for arty European fare, got roped into doing this bizarre and patience-testing film is a complete unknown.
Most people checking out Only God Forgives will be doing it for star Ryan Gosling, though his relatively mute acting has to rely on dazed stares and a mediocre fighting performance in a pivotal scene. The best one can get from this film is watching it as a failed experiment with a few interesting gimmicks.
Anchor Bay has graced Only God Forgives with a fine showing on Blu-ray, though the highly-stylized film has its visual limitations. Filmed on both RED and Arri Alexa cameras, the movie lacks the type of visual polish and clarity associated with those tools. The main feature runs slightly over 89 minutes, encoded in AVC at an average video bitrate of 22.72 Mbps. The 1080P video is framed in a 1.85:1 transfer, preserving its native aspect ratio.
Entire scenes are bathed in red or blue lights. Some scenes are clearly constructed around the use of empty space in the shadows. The pure cinematography is brilliant in some ways, attempting some things I hadn’t seen previously done with digital footage. It’s a hypnotic experience when combined with the slow, deliberate pacing. However, no one will mistake this for demo material. The moody lighting produces limited contrast, middling detail, and thick noise in the shadows. This is a gritty experience meant to enhance the atmosphere of Only God Forgives.
Technically, there isn’t much wrong with the video encode’s compression. There are no notable errors as a result of egregious processing. The transfer has been untouched by digital noise reduction and serious ringing.
Only God Forgives has to heavily rely on composer Cliff Martinez’s score to help tell the narrative and affect the mood given its long stretches of wordless narrative. The score’s slow, driving electronic rhythm is vaguely reminiscent of Brian Eno’s ambient productions. It uses a number of strange instruments and deep bass to carry the film in spots.
The lossless 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack provides a dynamic, highly immersive surround mix. From the opening fight in the boxing ring with a bevy of crowd noise and gym sounds, it exhibits nice channel separation in rich fidelity. The creative usage of bass hits at the right times, propelling the action and slower dramatic moments. Music is nicely spread out over the entire 5.1 soundstage.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included by Anchor Bay, displaying in a white font. Native speakers in Bangkok are translated into English subtitles by default but can be turned off.
Anchor Bay has provided a number of thoughtful supplements, particularly if one is a fan of Nicolas Winding Refn. Two free MP3 downloads from the score are provided on an insert.
Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Nicolas Winding Refn and Damon Wise – Damon Wise acts as sounding board and interviewer for this commentary. Nicolas Winding Refn discusses at length the various motifs and recurring themes going on in the movie. This isn’t the most engaging commentary but the director is fairly open about the creative process behind the movie.
Behind the Scenes (23:27 in HD) – A 12-part snippet of on-set footage from various scenes. There are some interesting bits to be heard about each scene but this is mostly for diehard fans only.
Director Interviews (12:05 in HD) – A 2-part interview with Nicolas Winding Refn. I found these interviews to be more focused and informative than even the commentary.
The Music of Only God Forgives With Cliff Martinez (09:10 in HD) – Cliff Martinez is interviewed about his score and how he went about creating it with unique crystal instruments. He is an engaging speaker in this featurette, heavily packed with insight and explanations for his musical choices.
Pusher Trailer (01:57 in HD) – Precedes the main menu.
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