For most composers blessed with the temerity to trot the tightrope of scoring a film, there comes a time when they must heed their inner compulsion to drop their creative inhibitions and venture out upon the wire without the aid of a balancing pole. It should be inevitable; however, not all are courageous enough to confront the challenge. For those who are, there is an opportunity to cultivate fruit far more extraordinary than their diffidence could ever provide.
These were the thoughts that were racing through my mind upon the conclusion of Only God Forgives. I've admired the work of Cliff Martinez for many years; however, nothing could've prepared me for how impressed I was by his audacious score for Nicholas Winding Refn's (Bronson, Drive) latest motion picture. With this single work, Martinez elevates his game to another level of artistry making him more than a stylish trendsetter. As Refn himself divulged during the Q&A, this film (and the subsequent score by Martinez) is not safe. It's a takes risks and obstructs expectations. It's a cosmopolitan quasi-fusion of Takashi Miike and David Lynch that will elicit loud visceral reactions both positive and negative. The extremity of either should not surprise anyone.
During the post-screening Q&A, Martinez admitted he was slightly intimidated by the film. There are a smattering of scenes in the film where sound and dialogue (what very little there is) yielded to the dominating presence of the music. This is an unusually demanding responsibility. Martinez sheepishly quipped that he felt like "one of the stars of the film," even boasting he was, "equal to Ryan Gosling." I couldn't agree more.
Only God Forgives is a perfectly balanced amalgam of visual and aural equality where no single component is subservient to the other; however each plays off the opposite of the other creating a distinct dichotomy. What is naturally perceived as horrific is beautiful. What is rapid is now sedate. What is virtuous is evil and all vice versa.
Martinez's score is primarily electronic souped-up with a seamless blend of acoustic-based orchestral textures provided mostly by strings and low brass. It skirts traditional definitions while teasing with colors of urban minimalism, aleatoric horror, and a beguiling charm that will demand your ear's attention in the film or by itself. I believe fans of Cliff Martinez will discover a score that ranks among their favorites while simultaneously converting a few who have yet to succumb to Martinez's previous work. Either way, this score represents a clear step up the ladder, the maturation of a composer who continues to push boundaries, and an exemplar of what this artist is capable of.