For many the repairing of director Nicolas Winding Refn and actor Ryan Gosling after the hugely successful Drive made Only God Forgives a guaranteed must see but not for me.
Apart from the amazing opening sequence for me the 2011 film was an utter disappointment. Part poor man’s Driver remake and part wannabe art house thriller it contained far too much talking in endless scenes of relationship drama and nowhere near enough actual driving making the title punishable by the trade descriptions act as false advertising.
Thankfully in Only God Forgives Refn and Gosling deliver an awe inspiring cinematic ballet bathed in blood and neon lights which plays out like an ancient Greek tragedy fever dream as Refn elevates action sequences to high art delivering simultaneously one of the most disturbing and violent yet effective and beautiful movies of the year.
Set in the hell on earth that is the under belly of Bangkok the story opens with Billy (Tom Burke) raping and murdering a teenage prostitute, a horrifying act which is brought to the attention of cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) a menacing and morally motivated man who instantly issues Billy be beaten to death.
Billy’s brother Julian (Gosling) is expected to take revenge but upon learning why his sibling was slain he decides not to, causing his vicious and unhinged mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas as you have never seen her before) to start a campaign of pain against Chan herself.
As bodies start to pile up either side Julian becomes forced to join in but as the endless blood shed continues to escalate it appears that no one can stop the cyclone of vengeance spinning out of control ultimately destroying everyone involved.
From start to finish every shot of Only God Forgives is a mini masterpiece that could be paused and printed to hang in an art gallery. From the lurid locations drenched in red and blue lights to the shadowy haunts Julian hangs out in to the opulent high rise hotel Crystal commands her troops from this film looks like a living painting, all be it one made by a mix of Marc Quinn, Salvador Dali and The Chapman Brothers.
Although he only speaks 17 lines throughout the whole film Gosling is excellent appearing as a repressed alabaster statue prone to outbursts of violence and rage but ultimately utterly conflicted internally by the life he has been forced to lead by his mother.
Described as Lady Macbeth meets Donatella Versace, Scott Thomas stands above all the corrupt and disgusting characters inhabiting the movies world as the worst of them all utterly perverting the course of justice and her sons in the pursuit of power.
Pansringarm is spectacular not only in his martial arts prowess but his quiet reserved performance as the angel of death haunting Julien’s visions and slicing his life in pieces both psychologically and literally.
Refn’s films have always been violent and controversial from the Pusher trilogy he made in his native Denmark to the spectacular character study of charismatic criminal Bronson with Tom Hardy the stories he has told have always contained a sick side ramped up by realistic violence which has often inspired outrage.
Only God Forgives takes this to another level not only in its extremely graphic scenes of murder and torture but in its themes of abuse, rape and incest however it creates such a tense mood of dread and despair infused by the striking and surreal nightmarish imagery it transcends the usual confines of dumb action and torture porn horror to become something else altogether; an art house action film perfectly capturing the never ending cycle of violence so many slip into.
Unlike so many other less graphic films or TV shows in Only God Forgives the murder and mayhem always have consequences and it is that which the film details along with the damage that can be done to a child raised in a world of drugs, sex and crime as Julian has been.
On a par with Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy in its performances, spectacular stylization, atmospheric impact and action packed artistry Only God Forgives is a modern day Eastern Western that packs a gripping visual and emotional punch that will knock you to the ground.