Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives has to be one of the most divisive films to come out in some time. It came out with a mountain of expectations crushing it, almost making certain there would be a mob of folks claiming its worthlessness. I mean, when you’re having to follow up a film like Drive its hard not to fall short on some levels. Plus, Refn had been working on a gradual ascension over the years in the world of independent filmmaking with great and visually stunning flicks like Vahalla Rising and Bronson. And to be certain when Only God Forgives hit three years ago it was bashed and battered by most as gratuitous and lacking any real depth of character. I watched it at home that summer on a Saturday afternoon when the family took off somewhere. I had a few hours to myself and rented Only God Forgives while it was still in theaters(one of those on-demand deals or something.) Anyways, while Only God Forgives is indeed a perplexing film and has the feel of a wandering art house flick at times, it’s far from bad. In fact, I found it an absorbing, dream-like fable. It was more a fever dream of a movie that took on elements of revenge, dysfunctional families, crime noir, and a good heaping dose of oedipal complexes. It is gratuitously violent, but when you’re dealing with a character that rarely speaks with words and more through his fists, and a police chief that prefers a katana to a pistol, you’re bound to end up seeing some blood here and there.
I’m not going to go into details about the film, other than to say Refn is a master of visuals. I think Drive is one of the best noir films I’ve seen in years and it has just as much to do with Refn’s direction and keen eye than it did the fine casting of Ryan Gosling, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, and Ron Perlman. Another huge factor in the overall genius of that film was the score by Cliff Martinez. Martinez has been working as a film composer for almost 30 years, working with Steven Soderbergh quite a bit over those nearly three decades. He first came into my view with Soderbergh’s Kafka. I found a used copy of that soundtrack on CD and listened to it nearly every night going to bed. There was something both peaceful and eerie about that score. It definitely felt like bedtime music to me. But Drive was the one that solidified my love of the guy’s work. That score fit like the glove on Ryan Gosling’s bloodied hand. Heavily electronic with lots of deep, dark synth, that score was as much a character as any hired actor.
So like he did with Soderbergh, Martinez has formed this symbiotic relationship with yet another revered director. He continued as film composer on Only God Forgives, and while he still occasionally visits those electronic undertones, there’s more tension this time around. With a piece like “Ladies Close Your Eyes”, Martinez seems to be going in Brian Reitzell territory with a blitzkrieg of strings and percussion giving you the vibe of anxiety. But at the end it falls into the spell of what feels like a dark lullaby. There’s also plenty of culturally diverse sounds on this as well, as Martinez works in the sounds and feel of Bangkok where the film takes place. “Bride Of Chang” is a pulsating rhythm and feels like a post-modern take on the spaghetti western theme. Pretty great stuff. Like Drive, Martinez’ Only God Forgives score is an absolute tour de force. It compliments Refn’s vision perfectly. It’s dark, moody, colorful, and downright existential at times. The dream-like vibe of film bleeds into the score…or vice versa. It’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.
Only God Forgives is pretty light on dialogue(with the exception of the deliciously frightening Kristin Scott Thomas), so this movie feels more like beautifully shot scenes of excess, beauty, and gore. So in some respects Refn’s film feels more like set pieces designed to accentuate the music…even though it’s the complete opposite. Though there’ not much chit chat happening, I feel the Refn is more of a visual guy. He’s a master at framing a shot and filling our eyes with glorious colors and shapes. I’d recently read that Refn is color blind and can only see overwhelming color, which would explain his knack for filling the screen with such vibrant hues. Only God Forgives is that and then some. Cliff Martinez is the perfect partner for Nicolas Winding Refn. He seems to get exactly what Refn is after musically. After working together since 2011 they seem to get each other’s artistic ticks quite well. Creative shorthand. Drive is one of my all-time favorite film scores. While Only God Forgives isn’t one I can put on all the time, it’s still a strikingly stunning piece of celluloid music making.
On a side note: I am currently anxiously awaiting the arrival of Martinez’ newest film score: The Neon Demon S/T. It’s yet another score for a Nicolas Winding Refn film, and one I’m chomping at the bit to see. It looks like yet another druggy, dream-like film beautifully shot and gorgeous to look at. It’s also another critically maligned film. It seems it’s either understood and appreciated for what it is or it’s been called pointless and vapid. I’m sure I’ll love it, and from what I’ve heard of the score its like a Euro techno nightmare. So I know I’m gonna love it!