Met with an equal mix of derision and praise upon its cinema release, Only God Forgives (2013) is certainly one of the most divisive films of the year. While it may not have that automatic cult allure and accessibility of Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous feature, Drive (2011), there’s certainly much to recommend in this bloody and impressionistic tale of spiralling retribution. The director has taken those moments of brooding stillness peppered throughout his last film and created a whole movie around them here. Ryan Gosling plays Julian, an American expat managing a Thai boxing club in Bangkok whilst dabbling in criminal activity.
When his deeply troubled younger brother, Billy, is discovered next to the corpse of an under-age prostitute, local police lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows the girl’s distraught father to beat Julian’s sibling to death. Aware of his brother’s past transgressions, Julian is at first hesitant to seek revenge. This fragile situation is further aggravated by the arrival of the boys’ mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a poisoned and thoroughly unpleasant criminal matriarch who instantly pushes for justice. Only God Forgives certainly may not follow the career trajectory perhaps half-expected from Winding Refn; like Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013), this feels like a sideways progression for the divisive Dane.
Winding Refn’s formalist approach will either confound or intrigue here. Add to that the unapologetic lashings of gore and viscera, and Only God Forgives won’t be for everyone. Yet the film has a visual prowess and a noirish, otherworldly atmosphere which leaves behind an overwhelming sense of dread and dislocation. The audacious colour schemes and overly-stylised compositions are like seeing a particularly lurid and twisted graphic novel coming vividly to life on the screen, and Refn manages to get similarly heightened performances from his actors. What’s more, Gosling’s monosyllabic turn makes his character in Drive look like a gasbag by comparison, but it remains a role with represents somewhat of a gamble for the Canadian heartthrob.
Multilingual European actress Scott Thomas’ Crystal is comically grotesque as unholy mother Crystal, but it’s arguably Pansringarm’s police chief who makes the biggest impression. He’s an utterly terrifying figure, an impassive angel of death who remains emotionless whether skewering an assailant or blasting out a romantic ditty on the karaoke machine while his officers look on, enraptured. Destined to find an appreciative audience on the small screen, Only God Forgives may not satisfy the ever-growing Gosling fanbase, but it marks another fascinating effort from a filmmaker who seems to delight in confounding his audiences and critics alike.
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