If you’re expecting Drive 2, reconsider watching Only God Forgives; we’re not in neon-pink Los Angeles anymore, Toto. This is a much more surreal, much darker environment, devoid of true heroes and villains, a foreign land for anyone not well-versed in Nicolas Winding Refn’s filmography past his previous collaboration with Ryan Gosling. Here, the ambiguity of Valhalla Rising is more relevant a reference point, that film’s use of the spiritual and metaphorical replacing the sleek hyper-realism of Drive. The result? Quite possibly Refn’s finest and most divisive film to date.
In the measured hour and a half he presents, Refn molds the clay of previous filmmakers into a stylish nightmare of a fever dream. It almost reaches the Tarantino-tier of cinematic homage: fiercely bright colours teamed with ominous soundtrack recall Suspiria, the heavy use of one-point perspective is siphoned straight from Kubrick, there’s a beautiful grisly nod to Un Chien Andalou, the neon realm evokes Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void… hell Refn’s even acknowledging his own work with yet another silent, violent protagonist, continuing the tradition set by One-Eye in Valhalla Rising, and of course The Driver in Drive.
Speaking of The Driver, Gosling is given a lot more to do this time around, but with even fewer lines. Julian, a drug-dealing, fight-fixing, fucked-up mummy’s boy, is streets ahead in terms of development. The relationship between Julian, his mother and brother is… complicated to say the least. The very first time we see Julien and his mother Crystal is so Oedipal and filled with incestual vibes that Freud must be all aquiver in the afterlife, and that’s not even going into the discussion of endowment over dinner with Julian’s “entertainer” girlfriend Mai; it’s clear to see why Julian might have some issues.
The two other central performances are superb as well: Kristin Scott Thomas excels as Crystal, a wonderfully horrible battleaxe, a world away from the typical roles Scott Thomas is seen in, whilst Vithaya Pansringarm’s corrupt police captain Chang is truly chilling, and deserves his nickname The Angel Of Death. These two dominant higher powers loom over Julian as he becomes caught in their crossfire. Chang represents death and justice, going to extremes to achieve what he believes to be right, thus being the God of the film. Crystal represents vengeance, seeking selfish satisfaction through bloody revenge against this Angel of Death, she’s our the devil. But that’s just one reading of the film. One of the most satisfying aspects of Only God Forgives is how open to interpretation it is; there’s a lot of subtext and ambiguity at play, which is quite refreshing compared to the majority of contemporary Hollywood exports that wrap everything up with a bow on top.
On a technical level, the film is pretty much perfect. The cinematography is really on point: each shot is exquisitely framed to the point where seems like it should be a photograph on its own, and a large majority of the film is bathed in so much red and blue, you’d think you were watching through a pair of retro 3D specs. Combining such visuals with another excellent Cliff Martinez score helps to create a vision of Bangkok caught somewhere between hell and purgatory. Even if you’re not quite getting the plot or are one of the many turned off by the sparseness and punctuations of brutal violence, you’ve truly got to admire the beauty of what you’re seeing on the screen.
It’s easy to see why so many critics disliked the film, and it was booed after its screening at Cannes. There are a lot more heavy-hitting sequences, a lot more blood spilled and a lot more symbolic slow-zooms involved than Drive, which (I hate to insist on this point again) you’ve got to imagine is what most people were expecting going in. However, it’s truly one of the films of the year on all fronts.