The new collaboration between Danish writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising, Drive) and star Ryan Gosling (Drive, The Place Beyond the Pines) caused quite a stir at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The hyper-violent crime thriller received a divisive vocal reception from the crowd at the Croisette; and while the film’s pacing, heavy stylisation and stomach-churning violence will likely result in its share of detractors, on an aesthetic level it is a highly professional work of formal vision and precision. Following Drive (for which Refn was awarded Best Director at Cannes), he has taken a potentially alienating diversion here. This challenging film, driven by his own existential crises and his fascination with images in favour of dialogue and violent characters that live on the fringe of reality, is a daring and unconventional exercise of a very different beast. Though not all of Refn’s decisions hit the mark this time, it is a tough film to shake.
Julian (Gosling) runs a Thai boxing club with his brothers, using it as a front to smuggle and deal drugs. When his brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and kills an underage prostitute he is turned over to the young woman’s father by a ruthless retired cop named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who has resolved to bringing divine justice to the corrupt Bangkok underworld. Billy’s subsequent death-by-vengeance brings their mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), the head of the crime syndicate, to Bangkok to reclaim his body. She instructs Julian to find and kill those responsible for her favourite son’s death, which draws him in to Chang’s own reign of vengeful bloodshed.
Like all of Refn’s films there is a lot to marvel at. The lengthy silences, the constant threat of violence and the relationship between the stunning visuals and moody score build lucid dreamscapes that are often indiscernible from the club’s labyrinthine hallways that Julian presides over and hides within. There is a relentless, heart-pounding atmosphere of simmering tension, which is an admirable feat of texture all on it’s own. This is a violent film. Even the crass words that come out of Crystal's mouth are of an aggressive nature and when we first catch a glimpse of the prostitute’s body slumped on the floor, the blood has blended into the lighting and décor of the room.
The narrative here is sparse, so what is this film really about? Refn doesn’t make that answer easy. It is difficult to recognise much substance in his ideas of a man who picks a fight against someone he has come to believe is God. This man believes in an Eastern mystical idea that he possesses a spiritual quality as he attempts to cleanse his city. Yet this is what Refn claims to have based his film around. I would be lying if I said this was all clear to me as I was watching it, but Refn’s address is subtle and evident on reflection. Understanding that Chang, the perceived antagonist of the film, is in fact the film’s primary character, presents a different reading of the film, and ultimately a much more satisfying one than the cyclical tale of revenge on face value.
On one level this is a story about a mother avenging the death of her son and a gangster coming to terms with a personal Oedipal complex, the mysteries of which are eventually revealed. The film’s problems, for me, lie in this avenue. Even when Julian insists that his brother’s terrible crime doesn’t justify such vengeance, his mother is dismissive, claiming, “He must have had his reasons.” How can we support more bloodshed in the wake? As far as Julian is concerned, Billy deserved what came to him. Chang believes this too and delivers his own punishment – for the crime of being a neglectful father, not a killer.
However, on another level it is about a man who believes he is the God of his realm. He drifts through the streets like a ghost, as Julian drifts around his club. They are the masters of their respective worlds. When his established order is shaken up by Crystal’s arrival, Chang finds himself the target of blind vengeance. Understanding that the necessary order be returned he seeks out those operating outside his laws, but finds an interesting opponent in Julian, the stoic fugitive trying to repair his tainted masculinity. It is this latter story that is the most interesting and emotionally rewarding, and it is made even more potent by Pansringarm’s terrifying portrayal.
Gosling is basically a blank slate, reliant on the intensity of his stares to indicate his emotional struggles, and Refn writes his character almost solely through situation. Scott Thomas felt like she emerged from a different film, and while she polluted it further with her crassness and overt sexuality, which suited the manipulative power-player she was, the performance was often frustratingly overdone.
Refn's formal aesthetic style is rich; the colours explode off the screen and the framing through doors and down hallways are meticulously considered. The shadows cast plays as important a role as the physical body. Throughout the film both Julian and Chang walk around as if they are ghosts. These imprints remind us that they are flesh and blood, each trying to do what needs to be done in their own way. Their inevitable clash is one of the film’s spectacles. With pierced and severed flesh left in their wake, they offer their bodies up for what they believe in. Cliff Martinez’s brooding score, the work of perfection, further establishes the sense of foreboding. Even the intermittent presence of Thai songs, sung by Pansringarm, is laden with unpredictability.
Only God Forgives is extremely intense and atmospheric. Proceed with caution upon entry to this surreal and unsettling tale of underworld revenge and redemption, mysticism and justice, but marvel at the beauty of Refn’s obsessively considered aesthetic and the syncing audio/visual beats. This is a heavyweight film from a brilliant auteur.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
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Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.