Justice and cowardice sit side-by-side in the brutally hypnotic Only God Forgives, the new feature from writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn and his muse Ryan Gosling. Julian (Gosling) is a drug smuggler working in Bangkok's criminal underworld. Julian’s brother Billy commits a horrific crime and loses his life as a consequence. Julian is tasked by his mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) with finding the person responsible and a local policeman named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) becomes the target.
Refn takes the point of view of the scoundrels in Only God Forgives and it’s from the perspective of the crime family (Julian, Billy and Crystal) that a majority of the story plays out. The characters inhabit the streets and alleys of Bangkok that are paved with sin. The family benefits from the debauchery of narcotics, gambling and more. Chang is tasked with enforcing the law to these people whose moral compass was obliterated long ago. Refn unleashes a world of pain onto everyone who crosses the lawman’s path with severed limbs, exposed ribcages and crooks reduced to human pin cushions. It’s off-putting to watch, but completely necessary in the morally corrupt landscape Refn creates. Chang silently moves through the urban environment in a similar way to Javier Bardem’s Chigurh in No Country for Old Men and Pansringarm’s performance is gripping. Adding to the complexity of Chang’s character are frequent visits to a karaoke bar. He performs ballads that sound like tender pleas for peace from a man immersed in a world of chaos. Music is Chang’s way of getting in touch with the humanity he has left inside his soul and it’s a brilliant touch.
After Julian unleashes hurricane Chang he is vulnerable and weak. Refn crafts mesmerising visualisations of Julian’s mindset as he craves the sexual offerings of a local prostitute. In these dream sequences Julian is always reaching for the womb, the origin of his existence and the only place left for comfort. Chang hangs in dark hallways during these moments ready to strike and highlighting that Julian is aware of his fate and is way out of his depth. There is a fantastic fight scene between Chang and Julian that shows the stark contrast between Chang’s controlled fighting style and Julian’s flailing dirty boxing. Gosling broods but it only masks the frightened juvenile hiding behind the scowl and it’s another top performance under Refn’s gaze.
Refn is a superb visual storyteller and Only God Forgives has minimal dialogue reminiscent of his previous work Drive and Valhalla Rising. For all the impact of the minimalist approach, when the characters speak each word carries a lot of weight and the tone of the film is sent into disarray by the verbal exchanges. A lot of Thomas’ dialogue is far too comical and misguided in the context of the film. Her cheap crime matriarch exterior is fierce with her bottle blonde hair, gold jewelry and bronzed skin. Thomas looks the part but as soon as she opens her mouth it damages the work little.
The visuals are remarkable and cinematographer Larry Smith soaks the environment with neon lighting and the tacky blend of the elegant oriental designs of the East and the grotesque influences of the West. Refn lets the camera linger on Smith’s design with long takes that allows for full immersion in the intense atmosphere. Cliff Marinez’ score further penetrates you into the murky situation with foreboding electronic synths and wailing organ pianos. You can almost hear you wallet crying out to buy the score once you leave the cinema, it’s that damn good.
Only God Forgives is a visceral fever dream that’s both entrancing and horrifying. Refn knows how to keep eyes, ears and mouths wide open in awe of his work, and he has done it again with this powerful film.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies