Only God Forgives

*****

Reviewed by: Robert Munro

"Perhaps Winding Refn’s most deliberately difficult work to date."

Nicholas Winding Refn’s new film Only God Forgives is an intoxicating and intoxicated pulp nightmare, which sees the Danish director reunite with Ryan Gosling, leading man from his last outing, Drive.

This time Gosling’s character has a name, Julian, and a family complete with, to put it mildly, emotional baggage. Julian and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) are in Thailand, fronting up their mother Crystal’s drug business. Billy, a nasty piece of work, is murdered by the father of an underage prostitute he has killed in a drink and drug induced frenzy.

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Into the madness steps Chang, a ruthless local policeman who dishes out his own judgement and punishment of the criminals he encounters, with cruel and dispassionate efficiency. After being called to the scene of the murdered prostitute, Chang encourages her father to take his revenge on Billy. An eye for an eye.

Crystal arrives in Thailand to take her revenge on those she deems responsible for the murder of her eldest son, and an inevitable, and bloody, descent into chaos and death begins.

Only God Forgives is perhaps Winding Refn’s most deliberately difficult work to date. With the success of Drive in his back pocket, he pushes his blend of art-house, pulp noir to new limits. The opening 30 minutes of the picture are willfully slow and abstract, seeming to flit between reality and other forms of consciousness, through which Julian seems to see his present and future all at once.

Julian is muted and impotent. He is voluntarily tied to a chair while Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) - a prostitute with whom he seems to have formed an attached relationship - masturbates. He sits in silence and has a vision of a meeting with Chang, foreshadowing events to come.

When his mother Crystal arrives, played with vitriolic aplomb by the excellent Kristen Scott Thomas, she berates his inability to act to revenge his dead brother. She screams at him, mocks his ineptitude in the shadow of his older brother. Again, he is silent - not uncaring exactly, but castrated and incapable of action. A mummy’s boy.

We only ever see him lose his temper, or called into action, when he feels that Crystal is threatened. He defends her after a toe-curling dinner with Mai, in which Crystal announces her belief that Julian never quite measured up to Billy because he wasn’t as physically well-endowed. “Why do you put up with her?”, asks Mai. “Because she’s my mother”, comes Julian’s screamed response as he pins her against a wall and demands she strip.

When Chang discovers that Crystal attempted to assassinate him, he ruthlessly tracks her down. Sensing the danger, Julian steps in to defend her and is brutally beaten into a bloody pulp. Chang, of course, moves on regardless. He’s a man with a code, from the same mould as Alain Delon in Le Samourai, to which this film owes a debt.

Winding Refn reunites with Cliff Martinez, who produces a wonderfully foreboding score for the film, and brings back some of the synth from Drive, but in muted bursts which accentuate the neon hell of Bangkok. Thailand’s capital is captured brilliantly by Refn and cinematographer Larry Smith. Rooms are swathed in tones of warming reds and cooling blues, while exteriors almost throb with lurid colour saturation.

This film is like a drunk. It broods in a melancholic stupor, silent for long spells. Beneath the silence there is a misanthropic rage which occasionally explodes in violent splendour. It often feels incoherent, and baffling, lurching from one thing to another. Yet suddenly it produces moments which pierce through the drunken fog with an eloquent clarity that is quite breathtaking.

Reviewed on: 29 Jul 2013
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A drug smuggler in Bangkok is charged by his mother with finding and killing whoever killed his brother.
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Read more Only God Forgives reviews:

Richard Mowe **

Festivals:

Cannes 2013

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Drive
Wild At Heart