Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow up to the cult noir hit Drive once again stars Ryan Gosling and once again becomes an unrelenting visceral ride in a hyper-real existence topped with copious amounts of ultra-violence.
Only God Forgives follows US ex-pat boxing club owner Julian (Ryan Gosling) through a maze of turmoil that emerges after the death of his brother Billy who uses the club as a front for a drug enterprise. The murder is instigated by Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a police Lieutenant who believes to be a God-like force on the streets of Bangkok. Julian’s path for revenge descends into further complications as the mother of the boys and head of the drug ring Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives in Bangkok to bury her son and ensure he is avenged.
As with Drive, these characters exist in stasis. Not to suggest that the performances are rigid and boring but that they encapsulate their motives and expressions through looks and movement. Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance dominates this film as the oedipal mother obsessed with avenging her favourite son – ironically because her character is perhaps the most verbal. Ryan Gosling, fastly becoming a Brando-like figure for his generation, re-applies his static persona solely based around his stares and his eyes, and whilst this encapsulated an intensive factor to the crime thriller predecessor, here it almost verges on the realms of parody at times and alienates a lot more than it intends to. The sparse dialogue from Julian’s character is only matched by an equally still but predatory performance by Vithaya Pansringarm as Chang who perfectly emits the god-like omnipotence that overrides not just Julian’s tortured soul but nearly everyone else in the film.
To solely compare Only God Forgives with Drive may seem at first like a one-dimensional way of evaluating it but the two are definitely spiritual cousins: the accentuated visuals, brooding electronic soundtrack and characters trapped in stasis emitting these perpetual gazes. Where Drive basked in its neon blues and pink of Los Angeles, Only God Forgives bleeds red in the depths of Bangkok. The violence is more central here as you’d expect with the focus around a kick boxing club, it is totally unrelenting and at times averting in its sheer brutality but it is completely akin with Refn’s style and for the most part works with the core narrative – and it just about manages to actually be a narrative here despite the minimalist or restrictive, depending on your reaction, unfolding of the plot. Cliff Martinez’ score here is equally minimal but evokes this hyper-real, almost at times Lynchian dreamscape. The twisted dynamics of the family of Julian and Crystal matched with the underworld of Bangkok are definitely engaging enough relating to the overall religious arc of the notion of God and redemption; whether the brutality of the violence and gore is needed to illustrate these themes may be under question but it definitely enhances this particular urbanised style.
Refn, like his previous work, is definitely reaching for art-house prowess masked within the manipulation of generic themes: this time an ultra-violent Thai western touching at times loosely on the work of the country’s own Weerasethakul. The films’ overly formal aesthetics, on the other hand, may polarise its viewers; luckily the film keeps to a economic 90 minutes. There’s no anthemic ‘Real Hero’ but in its place are haunting Thai lullabies which melodies soar around neon lit dream-like karaoke bars attempting to reach up for that Lynchian level of resonance. Sadly, whilst Refn climbs for this metaphysical greatness, the film remains trapped within its heavily stylised prism. Fans of Drive may lap it up because a lot of the same ingredients are there and it may well become another cult favourite because of its sheer audacity in steering strongly away from the mainstream. It may be said Only God Forgives over reaches to become an audacious art-house thriller but you won’t see many a film this summer that’s as bold, experimental, violent or striving for originality as this.
Watch the trailer here: