After the ultra-violent cult success of Drive, the experimental Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has once again paired up with Ryan Gosling for revenge thriller ‘Only God Forgives’, but they have very deliberately steered away from the preconceptions that the winning formula would be repeated. Where their previous collaboration dabbled in art house themes, the latest outing tears down conventions, offering a mesmerising cinematic experience that has severely divided opinions, inducing a chorus of boos from critics when it premiered at Cannes in May but receiving a standing ovation from others. Gosling stars as Julian who runs a Muay Thai boxing club used as a front whilst he peddles drugs behind the scenes. When his older brother Billy is brutally murdered in retaliation to a heinous crime he had committed, their controlling mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) orders Julian to avenge the death of her first born. This leads him to battle with the sword wielding police lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who is the apparent ‘God’ from the title, worshipped by his force as he employs his own merciless brand of law enforcement.
Refn’s trademarks are ever present throughout, exploring masculinity and religion once more, taking influence from his previous pieces but applying it with more ambition. This approach may not be to the taste of the market he appealed to previously, and his directorial stubbornness is admirable. The pacing is incredibly slow with long takes utilised freely and dialogue kept very minimalist, Gosling’s Julian delivering a mere seventeen lines over the ninety minute running time, rendering The Driver a chatterbox in comparison. I found this brooding tempo excitingly unnerving, the intimate lengthy shots of characters walking or staring spliced with moments of eye watering gore, building to a tense crescendo. Cliff Martinez is again the man behind the sound, ditching the synth-pop fairytale score used in Drive for nightmarish tracks complimenting the ominous themes perfectly, and combining harmoniously with the neon backdrop of Bangkok. The rich palette of dark reds and blues is haunting, used heavily to emphasise the sleazy setting and the disturbed psyches of its inhabitants, mulling around in claustrophobic spaces fantasising over obscene fetishes. Criticised for its over indulgence, this is undoubtedly the work of a colourful imagination not adhering to expectations and doing whatever the hell he wants to, which may cause him to suffer for his art, as many have before him.
Ryan Gosling is another artist defying expectation, shaking off the notions of the heartthrob status he had earned after his romantic breakthrough turn in The Notebook, continuing a run of portraying troubled individuals. He’s since played a drug addicted school teacher, a cross-dressing lunatic, a hot tempered bank robber, a murdering stunt driver, yet this is arguably his darkest role yet. With tight lipped Julian, Gosling has no choice but to mainly rely on physical acting and screen presence to present this deeply hurt character in the right way, and for me he succeeds enormously as his glare is seemingly devoid of any conscience but yet somehow also evokes a sense of empathy as his mysterious past is hinted at. We are treated to one high pitched yelp reminiscent on the screams in the robbery scenes in The Place Beyond The Pines, after his prostitute girlfriend Mai (Rhatha Phongam) questions his loyalty to his powerful mother Crystal, who is expertly brought to life by Kristin Scott Thomas. Her evil matriarchal figure offers true terror but also provides a much needed punch of hideously black humour to the sparse script, particularly in an emotionally charged scene where Julian introduces her to Mai. The other main player in the piece is Vithaya Pansringarm taking on the complex, and ironically unforgiving role of Chang. His cold killing is a joy to watch, juxtaposing strangely with his moonlighting as karaoke king, closely studied by his peers. He and Gosling acted out the Tekken-like fight sequence for real, and even that doesn’t end up the way we may think it will, continuing the rebellion against convention and leaving Julian wishing that he had never uttered the words ‘wanna fight?’.
‘Only God Forgives’ is brave filmmaking, and a very daring step into art house which ultimately won’t please everyone. The underdeveloped characters are at times mere pawns in Nicolas Winding Refn’s bold vision. He has said that he ‘always sets out to make movies about women but ends up making movies about violent men’, which begs the question if we will see a more feminine orientated turn next time around, or if his bromance with Ryan Gosling will continue for a possible third sort-of-sequel in what would be an entrancing loose trilogy. He clearly a dedicated member of the fan base, once saying ‘the thing with Ryan is, you can look at him for hours. Very few actors have that. It’s a gift’. His object of desire is in very high demand though after being hotly linked with every role going including Oscar Pistorius, the son of Luke Skywalker and Batman! Whichever way Refn decides to go next, ‘Only God Forgives’ has certainly got the industry talking, and at times arguing while we wait. It is another masterful stroke of unflinching artistic cinema that has taught us to expect the unexpected from the ever impressive auteur.