“Time to meet the Devil,” a character says near the beginning of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. Drenched in blood, shadow and gaudy light, it’s a nightmarish film that refuses to play nicely from the opening scene to the last.
Refn is well known for his personal brand of uncompromising filmmaking, with his most recent films – Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Drive – establishing him as a director with his own sense of rhythm and minimalistic tastes. Only God Forgives continues that tradition, with its long takes, geometric cinematography and unsettling use of sound. But anyone expecting the movie to be a thematic continuation of Drive – and Ryan Gosling again given top billing may hint at that – will probably be surprised and perhaps even horrified by Refn’s latest opus.
Where Drive was an arthouse thriller with a quiet, awkward sort of love story at its core, Only God Forgives is a much nastier, more nihilistic movie. It could be described as a revenge drama, but even that label isn’t really adequate – really, it’s more of a grim, nihilistic fantasy about control and humiliation.
Gosling brings his typical hangdog charisma to his character, Julian, an American boxing gym owner and drug runner located in Bangkok. When his brother and business partner is killed in retaliation for the brutal murder of a prostitute, Julian’s brow beaten into avenging the murder by his manipulative, sociopathic mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott-Thomas). Unfortunately, Julian’s target is the monosyllabic, sword-wielding Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), whose moral compass is just as maniacally unreliable as the criminals he executes. Retribution follows counter-retribution, and pretty soon, there isn’t a person left without blood on their hands.
A film that moves fitfully between ominous silence and coiled stillness to frenzied bloodshed, Only God Forgives is directed with Refn’s typical precision. Every shot seems considered, every edit precisely timed. Filmed mostly indoors and at night, the use of intense colour and shadow gives the movie an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere, underlined further by Cliff Martinez’s almost industrial, jarring soundtrack. The comforting synth pop of Drive is nowhere to be heard; instead, Refn’s score is a cacophony of church organs, screeches and thuds.
When Only God Forgives was screened at Cannes earlier this year, the audience – restrained as always – booed at the screen. It’s not hard to see why some critics have struggled to warm to the film in the same way they heaped praise on Drive.
Gosling moves through the film with eerie grace and wordless detachment, and it could be said that his character’s little more than an ineffectual cipher. The characters around him are similarly remote, from Pansringarm’s sadistic cop to Julian’s prostitute girlfriend, Mai (Rhatha Phongam). What, then, is Refn trying to say with all this violence, horror and club singing?
The key might lie in Kristin Scott-Thomas’ mother. A raging inferno at the centre of this broiling film, she’s the puppet master, the master manipulator. She’s magnetic in every scene, and utterly terrifying. When Julian tries to explain that his brother died because he’d killed a young woman, the mother simply replies, “Well, I’m sure he had his reasons.”
Refn depicts a world where all morality and humanity is suspended. Mothers belittle their sons and command them to commit murder. Cops are even more cruel than criminals. The weak exist to be exploited.
The film’s detractors have argued that there’s no point to Only God Forgives – no characterisation, no real drama, only the pornography of violence. But maybe the film’s emptiness is its point: its characters, stripped of humanity, are little more than monsters, lashing out and killing one another in a futile, endless spiral.
There are parallels, perhaps, with Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy here. There’s no catharsis to the killing, only a gloomy, horrible inevitability. When a character glances at a pan full of boiling cooking oil in a Refn film, you know something nasty’s going to happen. If Drive was Refn’s dreamlike fantasy about being a superhero stunt driver in a lonely city, maybe Only God Forgives is his nightmare flipside: a look at human nature at its most corrupt, a kind of neon Hades where Lieutenant Chang dismembers the sinful for all eternity.
As you’ve probably gathered, Only God Forgives is not a cheery night out at the pictures, and deserves to be lumped in with such disparate movies as Hostel, Kill List and Pasolini’s Salo on the list of least appropriate date movies. It’s a difficult film to like, but Only God Forgives is never less than mesmerising, and conjures up fevered sounds and images that are difficult to forget.
Bringing all his stylistic ingenuity to bear on a minimal story, Refn’s created his own unique, personal, exotic vision of hell.
“Time to meet the Devil,” indeed.
Only God Forgives opens on the 2nd August in the UK.
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