By Robert Makin
On the sweltering and merciless streets of Bangkok ex-pat American brothers Julian (Ryan Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke) run a Thai boxing club, using it as a front to smuggle and trade drugs. But their tightly run enterprise begins to unravel when one night the seriously disturbed Billy brutally murders an underage prostitute.
Arriving at the scene of the crime is the feared and respected Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Often perceived as an angel of vengeance by the criminal underworld Chang moves across the city like an invincible spirit of justice, occasionally hacking off the limbs of suspects on karmic principle, then finding equilibrium from the harsh horrors of his job by serenading his fellow officers with sentimental karaoke songs.
Once Chang has instigated the killing of Billy by letting the father of the murdered girl avenge her death, he then chops off the father’s hand for the sake of spiritual closure and to restore order. Meanwhile Julian’s mother Crystal has arrived from America to retrieve the body of her dead son Billy. An extremely ruthless and manipulative crime boss sociopath, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) insists that Julian takes revenge on those responsible for killing Billy. But with Chang on their trail their fate will most definitely be sealed and limbs will be lost.
Nicolas Winding Refn is a lot like his last two films, irreverent, entertaining, hilariously pretentious, somewhat reactionary but not as edgy as he’d like to think he is. He also has the habit of comparing everything he does with having sex, whether it’s making a movie or making a sandwich.
According to Refn Drive (2011) was his “cocaine movie” where as Only God Forgives is his “acid movie”. Whether you enjoy his films or not there’s no denying that he has an extremely distinctive style with a bewildering talent for creating an odd and uncomfortable atmosphere. As with his previous film the emphasis is on the visual rather than the human experience. Much like the Italian Giallo cinema of seventies it’s a sticky cocktail of surreal unease, abject terror and stylish interior design.
The dialogue is extremely sparse and forgettable, although Refn has lots of fun putting naughty words into the mouth of the continentally regal Kristin Scott Thomas. In fact her role as Crystal (apparently inspired by Donnatella Versace) and Vithaya Pansringarm’s Chang are the performances that really stand out. Everyone else is pretty much part of the furniture. Where as Drive had actors silently staring at each other for long periods of time, Only God Forgives has them waaaaalkiiing reeeaalllly sloooooowly in front of the camera without any facial expressions making it one of the most languid action films you’re likely to see.
It is another example of a modern director attempting to intellectualise b-movie aesthetics with not much in the way of dramatic substance. But during those extremely well edited moments when the methodically directed action sequences and the over powering score reach their pinnacle of unison the effect is astonishing and remarkably intense. A sordid visual sleaze feast of filmic extremes, Only God Forgives has the narrative depth of a coffee table book, but occasionally works as a cloying and full on sensory experience meticulously designed for the cinema.
Only God Forgives is on at the Ritzy Cinema, Brixton, from August 2 until August 4. See the trailer below.