Many will detest Nicholas Winding Refn’s ultraviolent, über-stylised, morally bankrupt neo-noir crime saga. This is not a prediction, it’s an observation. Only God Forgives has all the makings of a critically divisive film, taking that ‘style over substance’ debate to more hysterical levels, potentially upsetting those who worshipped Refn’s previous effort Drive and sending any mainstream-inclined viewer up the wall with its confounding abstraction and refusal to provide an easily identifiable narrative due to the fact that a) it’s more mood-piece rather than a straightforward revenge drama we’d come to expect, and b) Ryan Gosling barely has anything to say in its entire 90-minute running-time, making his character in Drive look and sound incredibly verbose. His Muay Thai boxing club owner Julian has the quiet reserve of a beautiful brooder, reminiscent of his turn in Drive, and Refn strategically locates him in this dark Bangkok underbelly as a criminally-wronged avenger, sent to seek justice for his brother’s death by a terrifying, domineering mother. If it weren’t for Refn turning the tables around on his audience, Only God Forgives would have played as a conventional vengeance story, but his refusal to pander to audience’s taste and expectations make this a particularly challenging, if not enthralling, watch.
Deception is at the core of Refn’s concept – taking a Shakespearean tragedy and turning the lead characters into the story’s perpetrators. Here, the family of expatriates are the film’s chief villains – the family-owned boxing club is a front to an underground drug business, run by two brothers who have tendencies for violence, one going so far as killing and raping a 16-year old local prostitute and the other have a history of murder back in American soil. And there’s the matriarch, deliciously played with such evil menace and riveting force by Kristin Scott Thomas, whose bleached-blonde locks, leopard print dresses and garish mascara are part of an ensemble that masks the monster beneath. As soon as she enters the picture, we know she’s the boss. When the older brother gets killed, she flies from America to Thailand and orders Julian to seek vengeance. Which leads us to an enigmatic policeman named Chang, who has a penchant for blades and a twisted sense of righteousness. In a prototype revenge movie, Chang is a villain – but Only Forgives brilliantly flips the dynamics, making Chang the rightful protector of his homestead, a silent samurai serving justice in his own sadistic ways.
There’s a Kubrickian atmosphere in the way Refn composes his images – the camera doing balletic movements through scarlet-bathed corridors, crepuscular photography of Bangkok streets at night mixed with Cliff Martinez’s thudding, aural repertoire, it often feels like a horror film, with splashes of visceral blood and unflinching violence that marks many torture scenes. It’s often hard to watch, but Refn makes violence inherent in this brutal world. In many cases, the physical violence are no comparison to the emotional cruelty of its characters, especially the mother Crystal’s eternal damnation of his son, weak, useless and coiled up inside, particularly portrayed in a hilarious yet wrenching dinner scene (Scott Thomas in proper bitch-from-hell mode). Seen through this perspective, it makes perfect psychological sense when Julian, disoriented in his new-found freedom, experiences Oedipal rebirth from the very womb he came from. These characters seek no empathy – they are the demons that drift in this Dantean world we all live in, and they need to be burned. Serenaded by some karaoke belting, of course.[separator type=”space”] DIRECTOR: Nicholas Winding Refn | CAST: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam | SCREENPLAY: Nicholas Winding Refn | PRODUCER: Film i Vast | RUNNING-TIME: 90 mins | GENRE: Drama/Crime | COUNTRY: Denmark