Only God Forgives [Winding-Refn, 2013]
In the opening scenes of Only God Forgives, the sadistic and cruel Billy (Tom Burke) murmurs that it’s “time to meet the devil”, shortly before he’s literally beaten to a pulp by the vengeful father of a young girl Billy had previously, savagely raped and killed. Devil or not, there is no doubting that we’re in hell – albeit one gorgeously rendered with murky shadows and a ravenous red hue, the seediness and depravity of Thailand’s rotten underbelly secreting its neon-infused poison into every scene.
Following Billy’s death, orchestrated by karaoke singing cop and all-round dispenser of ‘moral justice’ Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), Billy’s younger brother Julian (Ryan Gosling) is tasked with exacting revenge by their brilliantly vile mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). What follows is a game of cat and mouse, albeit one as unsubtle as a hammer to the head.
But what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in style by the bucket load. Each scene and shot have been so painstakingly composed that it’s almost enough to make you forget that this is a film, a MOVING image – like a neo-noir nightmare version of Chris Marker’s La Jetée. Yet, it is only almost enough. Whereas Marker’s film was seminal and unique, Only God Forgives, at times, feels little more than Drive transposed to Thailand.
The film neglects to utilize Golsing’s ability to act (he can do it, see Half Nelson and Blue Valentine), instead parading him to the point of adoration in a number of flashbacks, hallucinations and dreams, always beautifully lit and framed in a nigh-on catatonic state. And too, just like Drive, the soundtrack here is pulsating – thumping throughout its 90 minute running time, only pausing for surreal moments of Chang singing karaoke, which incidentally provide some of the film’s most memorable scenes.
That said, there are signs of post-Drive evolution from Refn here. Beneath the punchy visuals of Only God Forgives, there is a core of subtext and metaphor that its predecessor perhaps lacked. This includes an excellent recurring shot of Gosling’s outstretched arms; first sliding up the thighs of his exotic dancer girlfriend, later into his mother’s disembowelled stomach and finally being removed by Chang’s justice-wielding sword. These shots invite not only Oedipal connotations but also Julian’s fear of castration – a fear perpetuated by his intense love-hate relationship with the abhorrent and domineering Crystal, and linked to his guilt about previously killing his father with his bare hands.
All in all, Only God Forgives is another excellent exercise in slick style from the Winding-Refn/Gosling partnership that does have allusions to something deeper, although perhaps it does not go quite deep enough. That said, if God can forgive, then so can I.
3.5 out 5 – Seek it out!