Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous picture Drive, a brutal and beautiful homage to 80’s Hollywood crime movies, was released in 2011 to widespread critical acclaim and has already built up a devout cult following.
So when it was announced his follow-up feature would be another collaboration with Ryan Gosling in the crime genre, many people were expecting something in a similar vein to Drive. And while Only God Forgives shares some elements in common (thumping electro soundtrack, ultra-violence, minimal dialogue), it is overall a very different beast.
Drive was like a spiritual remake of Walter Hill’s 78’ film The Driver, where 80s aesthetics paid tribute to Michael Mann and William Friedkin. Only God Forgives is like a South Korean crime thriller filtered through Takeshi Miike and David Lynch. And if that description makes it sound a bit messy, that is because it is. In more ways than one.
The plot follows Ryan Gosling’s Julian, a drug-dealer working with his brother in Bangkok, who uses a kick-boxing club as a front for their illegal activities. His brother Billy, who has some disturbing sexual proclivities, rapes and murders a 16-year-old prostitute; police chief and avenging angel Chang arrives on the scene and allows the girl’s father to enact his own form of justice (namely, beating Billy to death) but also lops off the father’s arm for his failing to protect his daughter.
The brother’s psychotic mother Crystal, played with gleeful menace by Kristen Scott-Thomas, flies to Bangkok seeking vengeance and events soon spiral violently out of control. This series of events is stretched perilously thin over the 90 minute run time, but this really isn’t a movie about plot; it is an exercise in composition, a mood piece that is far more about what you see and feel than what you logically comprehend. The saturated colours, the long, fixed shots and the pulsating beats on the soundtrack produce the sensation of a lucid dream – you’re aware you are in a dream, but there is nothing you can do to manipulate the outcome.
Julian seems to feel this way too, being pulled along by the series of events, rather than actively influencing them, and Gosling portrays this beautifully almost exclusively through facial expression and body language. Despite some of his actions in the film, his inability to reach out and connect with others because of his oppressive relationship with his domineering mother, make him a strangely sympathetic protagonist, and much of this is down to Gosling’s subtle performance. Sadly, the other characters are less engaging, particularly Chang who is played in a charm-less, blank-faced manner by Vithaya Pansringarm; clearly Refn was aiming for some sort of mystical quality but he ultimately feels no different than your average coldblooded gang boss from any number of crime flicks.
Unfortunately the problems don’t end there either. The unsettling mood and uneasy tension are periodically interrupted by bizarrely humorous scenes of Chang singing karaoke to his men; they are seemingly meant to commentate upon various story developments, but the references in the lyrics are so oblique it feels impossible to make it add up. All they really serve to do is throw the movie’s flow completely off-kilter.
And then there is the much talked about violence, hyped up in the media by tales of jeering and walk-outs at Cannes. Some of it works very well; the ‘Wanna fight?’ kickboxing scene had me glued to it throughout, in spite of the brutality. But in other places it lurches uncomfortably into gratuity, including a stomach-churning torture scene that would have been a damn sight more effective in creating tension and atmosphere had it shown a lot less. Refn has admitted to a period in his youth where films featuring extreme violence were the main part of his movie diet, so hopefully he has expunged his desire to pay homage to them with Only God Forgives.
Ultimately, if you’re a fan of Refn or Gosling, then Only God Forgives is very much worth seeing in the cinema; the sumptuous colour palette and dense, brilliant score are perfectly suited to the big screen experience. But if you’re put off by ultra-violence or prefer engaging plotting and characterisation, then you should probably stay well away, because chances are you will only come out of the cinema feeling annoyed and very confused.