When it was announced Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling were re-teaming, many presumed it might be to work on that film’s sequel, Driven. However, going as off-kilter in terms of plot as you can, the pair instead bring us Only God Forgives, a tale of Bangkok boxing clubs, domineering mothers and brutal, bloody revenge.
When his brother is killed for raping and murdering a teenage girl, boxing club owner Julian (Gosling) is tasked by his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge his death. However the Bangkok policeman responsible, Lieutenant Chang – known locally as the ‘Angel of Death’ – proves both elusive and ruthlessly brutal.
Though undoubtedly Gosling is the big draw here – especially given his recent ‘retirement’ announcement – in fact his rather wordless, brooding screen presence means that Refn is both the main man and creative driving force behind this ultra-violent Far East-influenced gangster thriller.
Looking like every scene has been painstakingly stylized to within an inch of its celluloid life, Only God Forgives is absolutely beautiful to look at. Whether it’s a blue-hued neon bathroom, red-ceilinged karaoke bar or dark hotel hallway, there’s barely a frame here that doesn’t bear Refn’s hallmark flair for style.
Which means there’s far more resemblance to the hazy Valhalla Rising here than the critically adored Drive, although Gosling fans shouldn’t be too disappointed. Whether he’s sporting a simple T-shirt, a stylish waistcoat or a crisp suit he looks just as cool as the lights and background which frame him.
However it’s Scott Thomas who makes the biggest impression, sporting long, blond hair and a mouth that would make the strongest stand-up comic blush; it’s a world away from Four Weddings’ prim and proper Fi. Playing the mother-from-hell, her scenes share both an incestuous tension and playful naivety which suggests there’s a lot more to her character than we’re allowed to see here.
Equally, Vithaya Pansringarm’s evil villain Chang deserves a place in cinema’s morally-repugnant Hall of Fame for his turn here as the devil incarnate; happy to skewer a man to death one minute and then play with his young daughter or sing to a room of fellow officers the next. In terms of how to dish out revenge Gosling’s Julian could certainly learn a thing or two from him.
So while Drive devotees might feel a little disappointed that Julian has none of the Driver’s redeeming qualities – just look at how he treats the women in his life – and that the film lacks a character of Carey Mulligan’s warmth, Only God Forgives serves as a blueprint and lesson in how to make the most grisly of subjects look simply the most stunning.