Even though he had already been making movies for 15 years, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn became a known name in 2011 when he took the international film world by storm with his ultra-violent crime drama Drive, making an icon of its central muted character known only as the “Driver” (played in restrained form by Ryan Gosling), synth soundtrack and ultra-cool style.
You could be forgiven, then, to expect Refn just to repeat what he did with Drive for his next film, to take the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach that would surely draw in fans of one of the 21st century’s coolest films. But the brilliance of Only God Forgives is how it constantly subverts what’s expected of it, taking the “Drive-isms” – vibrant colours, moody characters, ultra-violence – and twisting away from them at every turn. For every vibrant bout of violence there are moments that evoke David Lynch’s Club Silencio from Mulholland Drive or the crazy, depraved world of Alejandro Jodorowsky whom the film is dedicated to.
The plot, such as it is, centres on Julian (Gosling), a drug smuggler who has made a fortune in the seedy Thai underworld. Operations are interrupted when his brother Billy (Tom Burke) is murdered as a result of him killing an underage prostitute and Julian is then tasked by his controlling mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to find and kill the one responsible.
Only God Forgives is less about plot, certainly far less than most mainstream audiences would like, and more about mood and atmosphere. Refn creates one of terrifying menace and foreboding through a deliberate pace, pulsating soundtrack (Drive’s Cliff Martinez astonishing once more) and carefully constructed camerawork that puts the viewer in a dreamlike world that seems stuck in a time all its own, lit up like a neon Christmas tree in an otherwise darkened room.
Gosling is the star atop that tree, re-teaming with Refn in what will hopefully be a long-standing collaboration, but the director has put the figurative tape over his mouth for the most part. Much like the Driver, Julian and in fact most of the characters don’t say much and only when they have to, whether threatening someone for information, berating their offspring for not doing what they were told – Scott Thomas is clearly having a ball as the overbearing, foul-mouthed mother swooping down into her remaining son’s life and giving orders – or literally asking for a beating. “Wanna fight?” Julian asks Chang, a retired sword-wielding cop brought in to take care of things (played with silent menace by Vithaya Pansringarm), essentially the passer and bringer of judgement in Refn’s violent tale of revenge.
Refn punctuates the film with moments of extreme violence that are uncomfortable to watch, though Drive often tops it in terms of graphicness – perhaps it’s another case of a film feeling more violent than it actually is because of its oppressive atmosphere. In any case the film is an often masterfully meticulous example of cinematic craftsmanship, clearly made by a director who knows what he wants out of a film and takes however long he needs to achieve it, even if that means sacrificing a faster pace or eventfulness that many will come expecting, not least because it’s been sold as more of the action film that it definitely isn’t.
Only God Forgives seems a film designed to be either loved or hated. Many will take against the seemingly empty violence, the lack of a substantial plot or the cold, distant way it presents itself (some initial reactions at Cannes were vitriolic to say the least), not to mention being confounded by the prominent appearance of karaoke. Is it self-indulgent and pretentious? Arguably. But for me it’s also one of the boldest and best films of the year. A mesmerising, haunting piece of filmmaking that has a clear voice (even if its characters don’t seem to have much of one) and a distinctive style that if you allow it to soak into your psyche it will stay with you, like it or not, long after the credits roll.
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