Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest big screen offering plunges the viewer deep into the neon tinged night of Bangkoks underworld in which we follow Julian (Ryan Gosling), a drug dealer who owns & runs a Thai boxing club with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). Things take a sour turn when Billy murders a child prostitute & in turn is slain at the hands of her father, overseen by the ominous character Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) a retired police officer who dishes out his own form of swift & brutal justice to those who wrong him. Julians matriarchal mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok & tasks her remaining son to seek revenge against those involved in Billys death, seemingly at any cost.
Fans of Refn’s previous film ‘Drive’ will immediately begin to draw comparisons with the pace & tone of ‘Only God Forgives’, notably the decision to cast Ryan Gosling as the near mute anti-hero with explosive violent tendencies. Gosling once again delivers a performance which is both haunting & captivating, the prolonged silences only add to the mounting tension of the overall film, Refn creates a link between the explosiveness of violence to climaxing sexually. This is in contrast to Crystal played brilliantly by Kristin Scott Thomas who delivers offbeat dialogue & acts almost as the puppet master over most of the cast, keeping it all together. This after all is a film about contrast, both metaphorically & visually but it’s the character of Chang who is seen to restore the balance, often brutally.
There are some deep rooted religious undertones within Only God Forgives, Chang according to Refn himself represents the much feared God of the old testament which adds to the more surreal feel of the film, how can you beat God? It certainly feels like everyone in the film has accepted their fate despite doing their best to avoid it. There are no winners or heroes here.
Another ongoing motif is the symbolism of hands, an open palm depicting praying whilst a clenched fist obviously signals violence & later on a loss of hands all together, read into that what you will. This isn’t a simple gangland inspired revenge tale being spun but one about justice & honour all be it on a deeper level.
The deliberate slow pacing will likely throw off viewers expecting a Hollywood style action flick but for those who are familiar with foreign film & it’s intent in saying more than it sometimes shows will appreciate the levels which can be unwrapped, some more taboo than others.
Only God Forgives is both brutal & yet poetic, the films score from Cliff Martinez (who also worked on Drive) highlights the tone beautifully, even the scenes where Chang sings karaoke, which could be construed as somewhat hilarious out of context are given a powerful dose of surrealism, you begin to question is this really about karaoke or is this God preaching to his flock?
This film needs multiple viewings to really feel content, Refn’s decision to make the audience feel secluded from the start (all the titles are in Thai) can be slightly daunting but if you stick with it you’ll be rewarded with a great cinematic experience with plenty of layers to get your head round.
Dark, brooding, violent & beautiful, Only God Forgives opens in UK cinemas on August 2nd.