‘Time To Meet The Devil..’
In pulling the brakes on the brashness of a sub-genre with a ‘need for speed’ whilst shifting the glossy neon aesthetic and sudden violence into top gear, Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ became a beloved modern classic that spawned many fans donning scorpion jackets in tribute to its easy on the eye ‘Driver’. Teasing a delve into the mainstream with his A-list partner in crime Ryan Gosling with a big budget remake of ‘Midnight Run’, they instead make a dramatic U-turn here with this distinctive yet uncommercial trip to Thailand. If ‘Drive’ was the urban fairytale, then ‘Only God Forgives’ is the ideal juxtaposition with its maddening and surreal descend into a metaphorical hell.
Stripping away its ‘suggestive’ excess, the film boils down to a straightforward story with revenge on its mind. Fronting a boxing club in the heart of Bangkok, Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a troubled soul who is near devoid of expression and inner feeling. The punches may fly in this environment, yet his real ‘kick’ is handling drug-related operations with his favoured brother Billy (Tom Burke). Unfortunately for Julian, he is forced to subvert his reserved demeanour when Billy is viciously murdered, after his own attempt at a despicable act.
Cue the abrupt arrival from the US, of their obscene, foul-mouthed maternal figure Crystal played by Kristin Scott Thomas, whom has long revelled in her incisive ’put-down’ of Julian. Wanting Billy’s killer’s head on ‘a platter’, Julian goes on the hunt for the guilty parties with a mysterious, sword slicing cop by the name of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) inflicting his own brand of justice a potential ‘suspect’.
On the surface, ‘Only God Forgives’ encapsulates many of Winding Refn’s recurring themes and visual motifs from his eclectic back catalogue. The drenched in red aesthetic of ‘Fear X’, intertwined with the spiritual/religious undercurrent of ‘Valhalla Rising’ and the heightened, dream like quality of ‘Drive’ prove obvious nods here. Yet the notion of masculinity and an accentuated idea of family dysfunctionality dominates.
In a world now renowned for its open-minded almost liberal viewpoints on ‘sexuality’ and the human form, Thailand serves as an ideal backdrop for such dissection. Gosling’s Julian traumatised by a previous event, cuts an emasculated figure throughout with Crystal’s references to Billy’s manhood and passing figure expressions, a horrid hint towards incestual relations and an oedipal complex. Julian is essentially a ’castrated’ man trapped in hell, puzzled by the demented psyche of the inhabitants of his world and is willing to challenge ‘God’, in an environment easily interpreted as an unorthodox ‘purgatory’ to reinforce his masculinity.
Refn’s audacious approach is deliberate in its stylistics and meditative in its pacing, allowing the ‘art-house tendencies’ of the film to penetrate into our own inner corners of the mind. Whether it’s the measured yet excruciating pepperings of meticulous torture or the tightly framed long shots of its respective confines, it all adds to the dread and sleaze-fuelled atmosphere the director successfully and stiflingly creates.
Interpreted as an ‘Angel of Vengeance’, Vithaya Pansringarm is a compelling protagonist whom subverts the expectation of its audience by being the real ‘anti-hero’, with the intense build up to the fight against Gosling’s Julian eluded to in its trailers, a wonderful riff on the Western genre in an Eastern setting. Meanwhile, Kristin Scott Thomas puts in a monstrous turn as Crystal and serves as the antagonist for much of the film’s immersiveness in taboo subjects. Whilst Gosling’s ice-cold showing as Julian is initially built as the narrative figurehead, he is necessary yet secondary to the film’s grand underlying ambitions.
Its divisiveness understandable. Its execution unconventional. ‘Only God Forgives’ is Refn himself challenging and experimenting with what constitutes as ‘art’, marrying the low-rent and superficial elements of a revenge film with a disorientating visual tapestry. ‘Drive’ it most certainly is not but on its own terms, this is a nightmarish, mesmerising vision propelled by its hypnotic soundtrack and its ability to find the beauty amongst its sheer brutality.