A violent tale of vice and retribution from Nicolas Winding Refn. In the criminal underworld of Bangkok, ex-pat Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a heroin ring with his brother (Tom Burke). When his brother kills a teen prostitute and is then murdered by her father, Julian faces the grim choice of avenging his brother's death,or facing his mother's (Kristen Scott Thomas) scorn.
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: When Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive premiered to raves here two years ago, he and star/producer Ryan Gosling declared it was the first of many collaborations to be hatched from their shared love of genre. Their latest, Only God Forgives, takes its cues from the fundamentals of Asian cinema, to continue its director's fascination for slick, sick stories of violent machismo.
A largely wordless opera of retribution, made under the sign of Wong Kar-wai.
After the last couple of odes to the '80s (Bronson, Drive), Winding Refn moves to contemporary Bangkok, with a largely wordless opera of retribution, made under the sign of Wong Kar-wai. Winding Refn’s film resembles those of the Hong Kong director, in that the story is slight, styling is intense, and music is strategic and salient.
The story, such as it is, sits at the intersection of vice and virtue, and explores the consequences of terrible parenting. Gosling is Julian, one of two ex-pat American brothers running a Bangkok boxing club as a front for a drug ring. He and Billy (Tom Burke) lurk in the shadows and supervise the deals and the duels, while their mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas), pulls the strings 10,000-miles away.
Billy sets off to 'to meet the devil", which is to say that the sleepy eyed sleaze kills a teen sex worker. Plain-clothes policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) surveys the crime scene, and lets the girl’s father dispense his own justice. There's a catch for that prostitute's dad, though; more than once in this bizarre, bloody morality tale, Chang goes to town on parents who don’t share his own devotion to responsible child rearing.
With Billy’s pummelled remains in the morgue, Crystal flies in to mourn her favourite son. She assembles a posse to punish those responsible ('I’m sure he had his reasons," she deadpans, when told of Billy’s own crime). Naturally, it sets her on a collision course with Chang, but she gets lost in her loathing of Julian, over his reluctance to avenge his brother’s death.
The Oedipal alarm bells are everywhere, and Winding Refn doesn’t try to 'snooze’ the din. Scott Thomas is a force of nature as Crystal, a whippet-thin monster in a bandage dress, who could pass for Donatella Versace. Taking the phrase 'sexy mama" far too literally, she teases her second born with naughty taunts; she hugs Julian’s groin on the occasion of their sad reunion, and later denigrates his penis size to the woman he pays to masturbate.
Though minimal, Winding Refn’s script is certainly memorable (especially for potty-mouthed Scott Thomas). But words are superfluous to the images; Kubrick’s DP Larry Smith takes honours here, and the tracking shots of haunted hallways are reminiscent of his work on The Shining. Cliff Martinez creates another excellent score, as he did for Drive, but adds plucked strings to his synthesised pulse beats, to suit the setting.
Winding Refn says he often sets out to tell stories of women but ends up writing about violent men instead. Only God Forgives is the antithesis of Drive’s celebration of its antihero’s 'softer side’. In this universe, anything less than epic masculinity is cause for ridicule and shame. Gosling’s handsomeness pays the price for Julian’s passivity, and for the latter half, his face resembles an uncooked steak.
The violence is extreme and exaggerated (you’d be surprised at how many implements of torture an enterprising assassin can source in a restaurant), and of the scale of the Pushers and Valhalla Rising. There’s a nod to Buñuel in amongst it, but the physical manifestations of Chang’s God Complex are guaranteed to agitate the squeamish. Others still could tire of the film's lethargic pace, even though it suits a story set in a heroin den.