Anthony Assad takes another look at Only God Forgives
Another tag team effort from director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling transports the action to Bangkok in a no holds barred marmite of a movie experience currently turning heads and stomachs in a cinema near you.
Gosling’s Julian runs a boxing club as a front for his drug business, when his brother is murdered and his mother (a scene-stealing vitriol-seething Kirsten Scott Thomas) demands vengeance, a surreal conflict ensues against the local authorities led by the seemingly supernatural Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) monikered as the “Angel of Vengeance”.
The narrative soon reveals itself however as a wolf in sheep’s clothing as audiences are pummelled by a one-two punch parable of penance and godlike retribution enough to make Shakespeare blush (or bruise) in its excruciating execution.
Bangkok is painted like purgatory for expat Julian and when past and present crimes catch up with him all hell breaks loose in an orgy of violence. Heads cave in, limbs fly and stomach wounds fit like a glove in mercifully off-screen but heart-stopping in the lead up to outbursts of depravity.
Gosling provides another almost wordless performance and scowls with such ferocity at times it’s almost hypnotic as scenes bleed into one another like some half-remembered dream. The dream itself is beautiful to look at however with sequences often opening on dramatic tableaus providing for some mesmerising neon-drenched compositions. The inherent problem is that they’re sandwiched between wanton acts of gruesome violence seeking an operatic effect but ultimately stumble into pantomime.
Not even dinnertime is free from the chaos in one memorable scene in which Julian presents a prostitute posing as girlfriend to his peroxide blonde acid-tongued mother Crystal. For starters she spews profanities like there’s no tomorrow before serving up a main course of manhood jibes towards her one surviving son who remains powerless to rebuke “because she’s my mother!” Adding insult to injury she may prove more than that as shared scenes hint towards an incestual relationship that may have contributed to his emigration and state of mind.
Perhaps this is where the film is intended to take place, in the fractured mind of its protagonist. We can only imagine the full extent of Julian’s dysfunctional existence and his attempted escape lands him in a nightmare dominated by an all seeing all knowing God that demands flesh for forgiveness. Seeing as the film is also dedicated to Chilean director and celebrated surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky it makes sense that Winding Refn is seeking a more cerebral effort separate to the super cool stylings of Drive.
Another change of gear lies in the real star of the show Pansringarm as the Avenging Cop Chang who can summon blades at will to dispense his unique brand of justice. When he isn’t reducing gangsters to pin cushions or tenderising Gosling to a pulp he’s serenading his squad with melancholy pop songs like a sermon after a long night of dismemberment. He pervades through every scene like a spectre and with even less lines than Gosling manages to convey enough menace in a sideways glance to bore a hole in your chest.
While Winding Refn should be commended for such a risky change of pace after winning both genre and art-house audiences with Drive, Only God Forgives is a polarising experience that will leave most viewers dismayed, disorientated and maybe even disgusted. If you’re a lover and not a fighter it’s incredibly atmospheric at times but the real fight is in trying not to walk away during the rest.