Only God Forgives sees Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling reunited with his Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. Given the jaw-dropping brilliance of their previous collaboration, not to mention that film’s iconic cool, Only God Forgives has a lot to live up to. Of course it could have all been so different had original star Luke Evans not had to drop out due to scheduling commitments with The Hobbit. While fans of Drive should be excited at the prospect of a Gosling/Refn re-team, Only God Forgives is a different beast all together.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) run a Thai kick-boxing academy as a front for their illegal drug operation. When Billy kills an underage prostitute, cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is called upon to administer justice. Allowing the girl’s father to kill Billy, Chang then chops off the man’s hand to even the balance of punishment. But when Billy and Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives to collect Billy’s body she makes it abundantly clear to Julian that it is his responsibility to avenge his brother.
Drive may be the film that Refn is now most famous for but in many ways it was not a classically ‘Refn’ film. Only God Forgives is. It’s a film seeped in metaphor and ambiguity. Like Vahalla Rising, Refn’s almost silent odyssey
in to an unknown land, Only God Forgives is brimming with a brooding, seething anger. Julian is a fallen angel, a man lost in the world, rendered almost mute – Gosling has only 22 lines of dialogue in the film – such is his disengagement with the world around him. Chang meanwhile is a god-like figure, a man passing judgment to those lesser mortals around him, untouchable by the law, omnipresent in the Bangkok underworld.
The aesthetic is reminiscent of Drive; that neon drenched noirish look, the walls always closing in on our protagonist. But instead of the sun dipped L.A. of Drive we get the humid anger of Bangkok, one-minute sterile hotels, the next seedy, red brothels and drug dens. Refn’s visuals leap of the screen leaving indelible images on your mind. There are moments that, like in a David Lynch film, Only God Forgives becomes a blindingly powerful waking nightmare in which sex and violence are thrown into a blender to produce a graphic, bloody pulp of existential wonder.
Like Drive, Cliff Martinez’s score plays a key role. More than just an accompany soundtrack, it ebbs and flows between being atmospheric and subtle to an all out assault on the senses, penetrating the film in ways most composers dare not even try.
Kristin Scott Thomas is mesmerising as the conniving, Freudian horror of a mother, venom and anger dripping from her every pore she is a demon dressed in animal print dipped in Gucci. Gosling is typically laconic cool, firmly from the school of acting where less is more he is a cipher to Refn’s pent up anger at the world. Julian’s dark past is never far from his thoughts and as such Gosling never allows many emotions to manifest in his appearance, instead giving Julian a sense of inner anger, a bubbling caldron of power that you sense is perfectly controlled but always on the edge. Pansringarm meanwhile is a force to be reckoned with, just as subdued as Gosling’s performance but with a dark presence always hanging over him. You sense that a Ghostbuster like set of goggles would reveal a vast lurking monster behind him. It’s not that he fills the screen, physically he’s nothing to intimidate, but dominates in a way few actors are able.
Dark, unsettling and immersive in ways most films dare not even touch, Only God Forgives is a vicious and compelling piece of cinema. Only God may Forgive but only Refn does dark quite as delicious as this.