Title: Only God Forgives
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Tom Burke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
Plot: Julian (Gosling) runs a Thai boxing club as a front for his family’s drug business, alongside his brother Billy (Burke). When his brother is killed by the vengeful father of an underage prostitute he murdered. Now with his mother’s (Scott Thomas) sudden arrival, Julian now finds himself dispatched on a mission of vengeance, one which will soon see him on a collision course with Lieutenant Chang (Pansringarm) the “Angel of Vengeance”.
“Drive was like getting the best cocaine and doing it all night long. But Only God Forgives is like doing acid. Not the kind where you sit in a chair and see things – the kind of good acid where you become the chair.”
It’s an interesting comparison and one which is probably best used to explain this film, as this eagerly awaited follow up to the critically acclaimed and Oscar overlooked “Drive” is like its predecessor anything but a straightforward film. Still what could you really expect when the film is also dedicated to Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, the surrealist film maker and midnight movie favourite who equally seems to be a key influence at play here, as Refn plays with revenge movie conventions to craft a truly surreal movie and one which is no doubt going to lead to another round of cinema walkouts which I saw with “Drive”, when the average movie goer realises that the film they have come to see is nothing like the film sold in the trailer, much less the ones drawn in by the prospect of once more seeing a rough and ready Ryan Gosling.
Julian much like Driver in “Drive” is a man of few words, detached from society outside of his crew and the voyeuristic sessions he spends with prostitute Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), though their relationship never progresses beyond this, despite Refn frequently hinting at deeper feelings between these two characters, such an invitation to an ultimately ill-fated diner with his mother or from the way she watches him during his confrontation with Chang. These are ultimately passing moments which never progress any further as Refn refuses once again to give into convention. Julian’s general nature though can be credited largely to his mother, who sweeps into his life like a whirlwind of spite and foul language, demanding revenge for her lost son from Julian while frequently humiliating him at any given opportunity, especially when drawing comparisons between him and his brother with her praise for Billy frequently verging on incestuous as she even at one point even comments on the size of Billy’s cock. It is a volatile performance which Scott Thomas gives here aswell one which keeps frequently has been compared to that of Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast", though I would personally say it would be a more noteworthy comparison if I could remember anything else she had been in.
The real draw here though is Pansringarm who like Christoph Waltz in “Inglorious Basterds” pretty much steals the film away, with his zen like performance of Chang who frequently dishes out his own brand of sword welding vigilante justice, which seems him skipping over the paper work and court system and instead hacking off limbs as he more than lives up to his title as the angel of vengeance, ruling he city unopposed and only putting his unrelenting mission of justice on hold to engage in Karaoke sessions, usually watched with transfixed gazes from his officers.
Reuniting his “Drive” production team, Refn moves the action from grime of LA to the Neon lit sleaze of Bangkok to create a film which while comparable to his previous film is at the same time a very different beast altogether and one which seems to be splitting critics in a way I’ve not since the Richard Kelly’s much discussed “Southland Tales”. Meanwhile its untraditional plotting means it is also a film requiring patience and an open mind, especially when it frequently seems like a disconnected series of vigilantes, even more so when they often seem so detached and self enclosed from each other. The end result is unquestionably dizzying and at time surreal, while one which left me wondering how the hell I was going to review this movie.
The other main issue here is that Refn has chosen to tell his story with a collection of such un-redeeming individuals, that it can be at times be hard to stomach the story we are being sold, especially when it essentially a tale of bad people doing very bad things to each other and more often than not anyone who happens to stumble into their world, while collateral damage frequently seems to be at a premium. For the more established fans of Refn’s work this will no doubt bring back memories of his earlier films such as his “Pusher” trilogy which equally featured its own share of morally questionable characters and like this film chooses not to paint everything in clear cut black and white but rather varying shades of grey.
Like “Drive” violence is never far from these character, however unlike “Drive” which restrained its violent impulses until its final reels, here the violence is spread out while slowly escalating as the film progresses to the showdown between Julian and Chang. This however is not Hollywood violence as Refn instead aims for realistic violence, as Julian is left bloody and bruised after his confrontation with Chang, so much so that it the once good looks of Gosling are reduced to a bloody and bruised mess. Elsewhere a spectacularly failed hit on Chang, only further racks up the collateral damage total, as bullets shred bodies shot in slow motion, as Chang sits with his men completely unfazed by the carnage erupting around him.
This really won’t be a movie which appeals to everyone, but then Refn has continually been a director operating on the fringes of popularity. Still despite the subject matter being often hard to stomach, here he continues to show himself still an exciting film maker aswell as one clearly still playing by his own rules. Even now looking back at this film several days later it is a film I still find myself still trying to work out, while if like “Southland Tales” it will stand up to repeated viewings is something yet to be seen.