After his brother is brutally murdered, Julian (Ryan Gosling), a respected criminal in the Bangkok underworld, undertakes a journey to avenge his death. Following the orders of his psychopathic mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) he discovers that he must cross paths with the city’s most feared law enforcer.
Perhaps the main source of the negative backlash surrounding Only God Forgives is that people went in expecting another Drive. This, however, is a piece of very minimalistic cinema which actually feels like the antithesis to Drive.
Admittedly, the trailer is very misleading. It’s quite a slow film and only reluctantly does it become a tale of revenge. The film’s characters aren’t real people, the things they say to each other don’t really mean anything and there is no real drama in the events that occur. It’s been stripped of emotions almost entirely.
Even for Refn, who, with a few exceptions (Bronson) doesn’t tend to produce fleshed out characters, this is very bare bones. Gosling’s roles never demand loud performances and recitations of dramatic monologues, but this feels borderline blank.
And while Julian may appear to be the main character, it’s Kristen Scott Thomas that delivers the performance of the film as Julian’s crime lord “mother”. Creepy, sexually awkward, and downright terrifying, she is arguably the most disturbing aspect of the film.
Thematically, god presides whilst conventional religion is ironically absent, and it revels in the imagery pointing to its main theme. A scene which features alternating shots of Vithaya Pansringarm’s “Angel of Death”; and the Muay Thai Idol that the fighters worship is immediately brought to mind.
The dialogue and plot take a back seat, the imagery is plentiful and the cinematography striking. While Drive felt like a dream, Only God Forgives throws us into a neon nightmare. But whether he paints dreams or nightmares, there’s no denying that Refn is a fascinating director, bringing to life the demons that lurk in Bangkok’s seedy interior.
Cinematographer Larry Smith, and composer Cliff Martinez work fluidly with him, conjuring the elements around them to create an incredibly surreal climate. Nevertheless, the main issue is that this isn’t accompanied by anything plot wise, and it becomes increasingly difficult to endure.
All in all, Only God Forgives looks like a Ferrari but runs like a tractor. I have yet to make up my mind as to whether I like the film, but it’s certainly made a lasting impression on me. There are some really bizarre scenes in which add a disguised layer of depth to the characters. So, if you can stomach the hyper violence, you’re in for an interesting experience at the very least.