Only God Forgives, 2013.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringam, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam and Tom Burke.
Julian, a drug-smuggler thriving in Bangkok’s criminal underworld, sees his life get even more complicated when his mother compels him to find and kill whoever is responsible for his brother’s recent death.
A hell coloured assault on the senses, Nicholas Winding Refn’s grim spiritual fantasy takes cinema to the outer edges. Dancing wildly on the edges of sanity, this is a film that will literally split audiences in two. Some view it as pretentious art-house meandering, using ultra-violence as a means to unbalance the viewer. Others see the production as a skilfully created piece examining the consequences of guilt and existential crisis smothered in a tidal wave of fantasy realism. I happen to be firmly of the latter opinion.
Refn’s second team up with Ryan Gosling in the leading role – following their excellent work in 2011’s surprise hit Drive – takes place in the grim criminal underbelly of Bangkok, Thailand.
Following Gosling’s Julian, a part time drug smuggler and go to guy for various nefarious practises, the piece has the barest of narratives. Julian’s brother is killed in nightmarish fashion, and his mother arrives on the scene and urges Julian to find and despatch his killer.
And as far as storyline goes, that’s pretty much it. But the film itself is far more than that.
An immediate assault of perfect black and blood red tones introduces the viewer to a pure cinematic world of nightmare. The entire film acts within a dream logic, with dialogue and performances pointing towards a disjointed, schizophrenic world view.
This is Julian’s world-view and his hands are tied – both literally and metaphorically – by an inability to recognise his personal choices in life. Wrapped up in a grim – probably incestuous – love for his mother (the excellent Kristin Scott Thomas), the withdrawn figure stumbles wounded with ‘being’ throughout life.
The corridors of his world (and of his mind) are prominent, with every interior acting as a labyrinth of internal doubt and resignation.
This existential display gets a perfect villain in the shape of Vithaya Pansringarm’s Chang, the ‘angel of vengeance’. The cold detached fury of Chang is devastating as he marches Terminator-like ever onwards towards his goal. Scenes of him singing Thai folk ballads in a shadowed Lynchian wine bar give a surreal beauty to the horror on show.
The rest of the film takes on a soundtrack of dark ambience, provided by the man behind Drive’s excellent soundtrack Cliff Martinez. While nothing like as bright and poppy as that earlier work, the sounds here provide an insular description of a mind pushed to breaking point.
If that sounds like hard going, well, I suppose it is. But the film holds a true bloody mystery to it and is further proof to my mind of Refn’s continued filmic interest.
The credits feature a thanks to Alejandro Jodorowski , a nod of influence firmly apparent in this and some of the Danish filmmakers previous work. As a surreal horror story of philosophic intent this film has more in common with a fairy tale or northern European legend. Widely misconstrued, Only God Forgives is a film of psychological impact and universal truths.
DVD contains behind the scenes, commentary with Refn, trailers and original artwork.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.