Mere minutes into Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013), it becomes evident that the critical derision which greeted it at Cannes was wholly misplaced. While it inevitably opens itself up to accusations of pretentiousness, it’s a picture that redefines the visual possibilities of exploitation film. The deliberate portentousness and formal precision is all attractive misdirection; Only God Forgives is still pure Bangkok grit; all blood, neon and sleaze. But it’s also a surprisingly languorous riff on the superficiality of genre cinema, using subverted iconography to examine the gulf between Eastern and Western sensibilities.
Only God Forgives follows the criminal exploits of an American family in Bangkok. After his reckless brother is murdered by a gangster for killing his prostitute daughter, drug smuggler Julian (Refn favourite Ryan Gosling) has resigned to let sleeping dogs lie. However, when his ferocious mother Crystal (an unrecognisable, peroxide blonde Kristin Scott Thomas) shows up in the city, a mess of maternal stirrings is unleashed within Julian and he lets himself be goaded into avenging his brother’s death, leading him face-to-face with corrupt cop Lt. Chang (played by relatively unknown Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm).
There’s inherent joy in seeing Refn respond to the crossover success of Drive (2011) with a film as wilfully ornate as Only God Forgives. The leisurely pace and deliberate opaqueness squander the possibility of resonance with the average multiplex audience, yet cements Refn’s place as an unhinged, genre-pillaging auteur par excellence. Dismissing the Dane’s latest as all surface is laziness of the highest order; it’s a film obsessed with what surface actually means in exploitation cinema. With Gosling draped in the outfits of Chicago gangsters and frontier gunslingers, and by showing Chang as a sword-wielding man of honour, Refn plays with the idea of clashing Eastern and Western cinematic sensibilities.
The level of stylistic flair and formal expertise on display in Only God Forgives is genuinely arresting. Refn focuses his camera on the colours, the contrasts, and the locations, creating a gaudy, heightened nightmare that unfolds with strange dream logic. The admittedly perfunctory narrative is punctuated by breathtaking fights and daring expressionist diversions. The precisely choreographed violence is a dizzy ballet of intensity, with pronounced cinematic poses and rhythmic gunshots.
The film’s sporadic improbable flights of fancy are slightly more problematic, underpinned by simplistic pop-psychology (Oedipal complex, anyone?), but is also executed with committed brio. With Only God Forgives, Refn should be applauded for creating such a hypnotic, esoteric work that belies its complexity behind layers of both cinematic bravura and bravado.