Only God Forgives is Danish filmmaker Nichols Winding Refn’s follow-up to his critically-acclaimed thriller Drive. It’s also the antithesis of that film – a deliberately slow, hallucinatory experience characterized more by its ultra-stylized mood than its introverted plot and characters. It doesn’t have the same finesse as Drive, but this is a strange and transporting work of noir cinema. It challenges and provokes discussion, even when it tiptoes on the border of pretension.
Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a detached, near-mute drug smuggler. Together with his older brother Billy (Tom Burke), he runs a kick-boxing club in Bangkok that acts as a front for their lucrative drug business. When Billy goes a little too crazy on the town one night, leaving a trail of blood and brains in his wake, he becomes the victim of a cruel game played by a sadistic policeman named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Although first compelled by revenge, Julian let’s things slide when he realizes the heinous nature of Billy’s crimes. Their satanic mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) then enters the scene, but she isn’t as forgiving.
There’s not much more to the plot. But like with Drive, Refn isn’t as interested in plot as he is in setting the tone and atmosphere – elements he glazes the picture with. Cinematographer Larry Smith, who also shot Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, saturates the sin-infested underworld of Bangkok with striking neon hues – crimsons, blues, yellows – none too subtle representations of these tortured souls’ state of minds. These lush hues stand in stark contrast to the purer settings of the film – the elegant five-star hotels, Chang’s family home – which Smith bathes in everyday tones.
Smith’s stunning work gives the film a seductive yet simultaneously repulsive tinge, which is Refn’s intent. He wants you to get under these characters’ skins without having to spell it out by way of cheap expository dialogue. Whether or not he succeeds is in the eye of the beholder. As with his previous work (Drive, Valhalla Rising, and Bronson), Refn uses plenty of long Kubrickian takes, pregnant pauses, and slow-zooms, all which make the film a heightened sensory experience. Cliff Martinez’s pulsating synth-pop score further drives home this sensory experience and propels the film towards a bloody climax.
For all his deftness at technical artistry and at symbolism, where Refn trips up is his characters. Although there are interesting, even fascinating ideas lurking beneath the surface, his characters remain an enigma. Perhaps that may have been his intention – to keep you at arm’s length from them – but it’s a disservice to the film. There are obvious Freudian themes at play. An incestuous relationship is alluded to. Julian keeps having nightmares where he’s dismembered. But these themes, as interesting as they are, aren’t sufficiently fleshed out. Chang, another one of the film’s warped anti-heroes, is portrayed as little more than an avenging “Angel of Death” sent to wipe the streets of Bangkok clean. In hindsight, it isn’t difficult to see why the film received a polarizing reaction at Cannes. Refn doesn’t give audiences enough to latch on to.
The characters may be difficult to decipher, but it’s no fault of the actors who are all effective in their roles. Gosling, whose Julian is more stone-faced than his character in Drive, brings pathos to the role even though he barely utters more than 30 words throughout the film. Pansringarm is mesmerizing as an equally stoic Thai avenger whose talent for executing people is only surpassed by his love for karaoke. However, it’s Scott Thomas’ outrageous turn that leaves the longest mark. With her Real Housewives of New Jersey outfits, leather skin, and perpetual frown, Thomas plays her matriarch character as the ultimate queen bitch, excreted head-first from the bowels of hell.
Undoubtedly Only God Forgives will not be for everyone, but it’s a haunting visual poem that lingered in my mind for days after I watched it. The fact that I’m still thinking about it is a credit to Refn’s artistry. It’s filmmakers like him that Hollywood needs—people willing to take risks and make experimental films that challenge the way we view cinema as visual art.