From the first shot it’s a sensory overload. The red, the shadows, the smog, the threatening, stark neon, its smothering and overwhelming. Instantly Winding Refn establishes an atmosphere founded on a knife-edge. Drawing the viewer from the backrooms of a Thai boxing club, to a rural home retreat and upmarket hotel, the Bangkok setting thrives on visual beauty. But this is no tourism advert, the seedy, dirty underbelly of the city is where the story finds its soul.
The plot follows boxing coach and drug dealer Julian (Ryan Gosling) as he copes with the aftermath of his brother Billy’s murder. Initially setting itself as a revenge thriller, Julian tracks down the killer, only to find that his brother had raped and killed the man’s teenage (and underage) daughter. Upon bestowing forgiveness to the killer who has already paid with one of his hands, Julian returns to discover his mother has flown in from America for Billy’s funeral. Crystal is a toxic, trashy, Barbie-like creature, played with an uneven ferocity by an astonishing Kristin Scott Thomas. When Gosling propositions to a prostitute, “I’d like you to meet my mother”, the endearing statement has never sounded like such a threat. The following dinner scene in which Crystal tears apart her relationship with Julian, throws insults at the supposed girlfriend and unveils her crippling grief over Billy’s death is electric.
Outside the family dynamics is the supernatural ‘Angel of Vengence’, or Chang, a corrupt police officer who bequeaths biblical justice with a sword seemingly drawn from his spine. Provoking Billy’s murder and hunting the wrong doings of all in the film, he’s a powerful, solemn character. Like Gosling’s Julian, the Driver before him and Tom Hardy’s Bronson, this ‘Angel’ glories in silence, barely uttering more than a few lines across the total running time of the film. While it works for this particular character, Julian suffers from Winding Refn’s trademark sparse dialogue. With the Driver we felt sympathy, his silence added to his vulnerability, but with Julian his stalled speech feels hostile, abrupt and antagonistic.
The film expertly draws from surrealist director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who it is also dedicated to, forming a supernatural, hallucinogenic plot that will equally enthrall and isolate its audience. Only God Forgives is not a film for everyone- it is one of the cases where both the 0 star and 5 star reviews it received upon its premiere in Cannes can be justified. In particular, slow, lingering shots of hands, hands being washed, curled into a fist, pulling a sword, disappearing below a prostitutes skirt can feel long and seem to hammer home the main themes of revenge, redemption, forgiveness in a needlessly overtly symbolic manner.
The film is ripped back from its dreamlike state with sharp interjections of fierce violence. Rarely sudden, the film luxuriates in building up to the violence and gut-wrenching, explicit torture and death scenes litter the intoxicating plot. Some sequences are not for the fainthearted; here we have eyes being cut out, spikes being thrust through limbs, rib cages spliced opened and arteries torn.
The film is at its most successful during its most dynamic sequences. The above-mentioned dinner and boxing bought between Julian and Chang in particular stand out from the woozy, hazy scenes that surround them. The ending, more so than the sequences it succeeds, will frustrate as many as it inspires. In Only God Forgives Winding Refn has constructed an experience that will stay with the audience long after they leave their cinema seat. Whether they enjoy that experience is a different matter entirely.
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