First thing’s first, and a crucial caveat for Only God Forgives; this is not Drive 2. Whatever you may think based on the advertising campaign, or whatever you may be wishing for, this is not that movie. Give up on that one for the time being. The second collaboration between auteur director Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling is, by some distance, a tougher, more esoteric picture. A fluid, dreamlike odyssey in which the notion of God is as distant as the simple gratification of Drive‘s action-movie violence. What we have here is a compelling nightmare distilled onto film and framed in neon blues and reds. An orgy for the senses and a bleak philosophical black hole, eager to suck you in, but with no promise of a swift return. Only God Forgives is astonishing.
Still having trouble letting go? Well then think of it like this – if Drive was a Ryan Gosling vehicle directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, then Only God Forgives is a Nicolas Winding Refn film that happens to feature Ryan Gosling. This is a director’s piece. An aesthetic wet dream. Every frame of this film is precisely thought out, every cut timed exactingly to blend or contrast with the scene before or after, harsh cuts or tonal bleeds bedded in by Cliff Martinez’ incredible score. In terms of construction Only God Forgives is simply mesmeric. It takes the cold O.C.D. of Kubrick and filters it through the noir sensibilities of Lynch, whilst retaining Refn’s unique stamp. There is corruption and lust and violence here. To call it sleazy is too dismissive. Refn encourages us to explore the darker half of ourselves. Gosling’s Julian is trapped there. In this movie, it’s in Thailand.
Julian oversees a boxing gym, but it’s a front for the family business which deals in the less honorary trade of drug trafficking. His older brother Billy (Tom Burke) is something of a swine, and when he gets himself killed for raping and murdering a sixteen year old girl, Julian is charged with exacting vengeance by their domineering mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas).
But even this brief synopsis does not equip a prospective viewer for what they will encounter. If the film is Julian’s dream then its primary focus is this story’s antagonist; police official Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm); a man of unbiased cruelty whom Julian is completely ill-equipped to take on. That he even tries is down to the extraordinary influence his mother has. In this role Scott Thomas is unforgettable. Going for it full-throatedly, she stakes a claim for queen bitch of the big screen, appearing like rich trash, smashing out C-bombs and treating her second son like filth. Julian’s devotion to her is almost perverse. And as further revelations about their family history reveal themselves, a distinctly Oedipal picture is conjured.
But don’t be fooled, Julian haunts this film like a ghost, lost in limbo. Bangkok is Chang’s turf, and he dominates the picture, either dolling out death and judgement without so much as a facial tick, or singing karaoke in a series of disarming scenes that dare the audience into questioning whether this movie is really happening. There was nervous laughter when I saw this film, and I can completely understand that. Refn declared in interviews he wants to “fuck” his audience. Here he does just that, defying us to blink.
As thin as the story is here – and you could write it down on a decent-sized napkin – the themes and suggestions bubbling under the surface appear legion. Chiefly Only God Forgives appears to be a film designed to question or tear down Western ideas of masculinity. Tellingly in one (literally) torturous scene, a police officer advises the women present to close their eyes, but ventures that the men should watch. Save for Crystal’s involvement, all of the violence in this picture is the province of men. The women are at best bystanders, at worst hapless collateral damage. In Julian we see the bindings of expectation. His mother wants so bitterly for him to play the hero role. He wants so badly to have her approval. This toxic relationship compels Julian into playing a part he cannot hope to succeed in. This is not a film about heroes and villains, it is a film about the lost.
A series of possible dream sequences bear this out. Julian seems lost in a maze. Not to invite Room 237 levels of analytical impotence to my review, but I was frequently reminded of Theseus and the Minotaur. Julian’s hypnotic visions find him trapped helplessly in corridors, his fate inescapable. The sinister hotel imagery also brings to mind the otherworldly menace in Huraki Murakami’s novel The Wind Up Bird Chronicle – abstract expressions of deep-seated psychological wounds.
Refn was joined on set by Irréversible and Enter The Void director Gaspar Noé. And whilst Only God Forgives is dedicated to midnight movie filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (as Drive was), it is Noé’s influence that feels the most pronounced. The title is misleading at best. God’s influence is felt nowhere in this film. If Julian’s world represents hell, it does nothing to suggest there is a heaven to counterbalance it. This doesn’t necessarily make Only God Forgives spiritually vacant, but it does suggest that such vacancy has been brought to Thailand by the West. As cruel as Chang’s actions are, it is Billy, Julian and Crystal’s deeds which instigate them. The resulting carnage becomes an inevitable consequence of Americans clashing with a culture they haven’t taken the time to understand or particularly consider.
Watching this movie invokes a kind of woozy delirium which I whole-heartedly welcome. This is not mainstream cinema, and the way in which Refn’s film has been set up as just-another-action-thriller will lead many to lose patience or actively berate this film. Only God Forgives is an impeccably crafted, wholly successful ‘audience fucker’. A nightmare of exquisite creation, violent and without compromise. Masculinity, ignorance, acceptance, the diminishing cycle of violence. All of the above and more are swept into Refn’s intoxicating gravitational pull. Just be warned that you might not fully escape. Consider yourself fucked.