Only God Forgives (18)

Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, FRA/THA/USA/SWE, 90mins, 2013

How do you follow the visceral punch to the gut brilliance of Drive? You make something that doesn’t quite have the reach of its predecessor, is completely different, but still provokes a reactive stimulation of the mind and senses.


The plot is streamlined simplicity, the film is not. Dropped into the neon drenched Bangkok underworld, a concrete maze so grubbily recreated that it’ll make your skin itch, dishevelled drug-dealer, Billy (Tom Burke) is in search of some decadent pleasures. When his journey ends in a blood soaked room, retribution is sought against him, resulting in his own death as a form of punishment, all orchestrated by the karaoke singing police chief, Chang (Pansringarm).


Arriving to collect the body of her first born child, Crystal (Scott-Thomas), looking like a Lindsay Lohan mugshot and commanding the respect that her perceived crime lord would, demands retaliation for his killing. An act that she wants carried out by her other Bangkok based sibling, Julian (Gosling), a shadow of man who skirts the periphery of the darker aspects of the capital, with whom she has an obvious oedipal connection, despite showing disdain for his more restrained approach to criminality. Revenge is the order of the day.


What you take from Only God Forgives all depends on whether you allow it to wash over you, tolerating the stark assault of the defined primary colours and drawing your own conclusions at the end of 90 exhausting, patience testing, but daringly original ninety minutes.


What does it all mean? Possibly nothing beyond the brilliant surface level styling, now synonymous with Refn’s output, but you can draw so many thematic and theological conclusions from this Freudian nightmare of a movie. Gosling continually wanders in a comatose state; is he seeking redemption in this world of purgatory? A lot is made of his abstinence, as he keeps hands by his side during a seduction scene and forgives the man who killed Billy. Are the prominent colours representative of something? All of the acts of sin are lit by a hellish red, and he is asked whether he “wants to meet the devil? The scenes with a lighter hue are all of a semi-redemptive nature. This might sound like nonsense, but the joy of Only God Forgives in how you interpret it, and with a film as divisive as this; reactions could range from boredom to brilliance.


If he does encounter “the devil”, then it’s surely in the form of Scott-Thomas, more than anyone she gives the film momentum amongst a cast of characters drifting through the narrative; revelling in the heightened mannerisms and viper tongued delivery of the films strongest lines, which in all honesty isn’t that difficult in a film bereft of heavy dialogue, she is the antithesis of what we’ve come to expect from her, but still utterly brilliant and reason alone to watch the movie.


It’s hard to know if Gosling’s performance is worthy of praise, he is little more than a vessel to guide us through this underbelly, a soulless wraith without any redeeming character traits. So much so that you end up rooting for Pansringarm’s sword wielding police chief, because at least he has justified motivation during his misplaced crusade against crime.


Aside from the entire beautiful veneer of the film, Refn’s visual panache strikes in a number of signature sequences. One involves an interrogation during which all of the working girls are asked to keep their eyes closed, and then you have the numerous lucid montages, tiptoeing around any explicit expectations you may have, and it’s also worth mentioning that despite the presence of fighting, this is in fact a lot less violent than Drive.


Esoterically aloof or incredibly simple; taken either way, Only God Forgives is a remarkable piece of modern filmmaking that needs viewing with an open mind.