November 06, 2013

Film review. An analysis of the cinematography of Only God Forgives, by Nicolas Winding Refn

Only God Forgives is the last film by the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Bronson, Valahalla Rising) which was selected in last year Cannes Film Festival official Competition.

The plot. A drug smuggler owns a Thai box gym in Bangkok as a front for his drug operations. When his brother is killed, his mother, and chief of the organization, arrives urging him to find his brother's killer and revenge him.

Cinematography: Larry Smith
Camera: Arri Alexa Plus, Red Epic
Lenses:  Cooke S4
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Format: ARRIRAW, Redcode RAW
Film Stock: -

Only God Forgives is the second collaboration between director  Nicolas Winding Refn and cinematographer Larry Smith (The Guard, Bronson) who worked as gaffer and lighting cameraman in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, Barry Lyndon and The Shining. His election for digital and cameras such as the Arri Alexa and the Red Epic is justified not only for budget reasons but also because they were working with a 7 weeks schedule with numerous locations, so they had to be quick and fast at shooting.

The image is softened with  the lenses used, the Cooke S4, as we can notice by its signature: the octagonal iris. Borders are soft, contrast isn't high and the transition to out-of-focus areas is soft too, while skin tones are slightly warmer. Definitely one of the best solutions to give the digital format a cine-like look.

Most of the times Smith chooses a one-light-set-up to light the scene. It is often a strong light which falls onto the characters after passing trough some kind of grid, painting patterns of strong shadows on character's face and body, which is visually interesting. This kind of lighting is obviously theatrical and it is reinforced with the beautiful use of on set lights, like Chinese lanterns in the karaoke club  or the lights on the wall at the restaurant, creating a more natural and diffused light.

But the characteristic of Smith's cinematography which is predominant throughout the film is the use of colored filters on light. In order to recreate the ambient of Bangkok and of the places where most of the scenes where shots, lights are filtered with red gels. Sometimes different colours filters, mainly blue, are used so colour contrast is strongly increased. There are scenes, like the fight one,  lit with a red tone ambient light  while the key light lighting the characters is white: bright neons and strong reds coexist to transmit the feeling of a city and a story filled up with blood, eroticism, violence and darkness.

Anyway, Only God Forgives' cinematography is meant to visually impress only. There are some beautiful images in the film but they are just that: they don't enhance character's feelings or the story which itself is also meant to impress and is missing something that has to be basic for a film: content.


  1. Wow, I guess you've never heard of subtext then.

  2. Another person who just doesn't get it. The film if pure solid content.