(Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013)
Welcome to hell. That's seemingly what it feels like to enter Only
God Forgives' Thai torture chamber. A harsh sounding intro perhaps, but
an apt description of the seedy world we're thrust into from the start.
This is not the "safe" world of Drive, as some might expect from a
re-team of Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling. We're far from the
familiarity of Los Angeles and the breathless romance of that film. This
is an alien land. This is a form of purgatory.
Only God Forgives is the story of a man, Julian (Gosling), who
knows he deserves to be stuck biding his time in this faceless, unglamorous, unfamiliar part of the world. His hands
have had to do bad things and he wants rid of them. His mother (Kristin
Scott Thomas) arrives here and is a hellish force of nature. Playing
against type Scott Thomas is fantastic, with a controlling vitriolic manner
exuding from underneath a trashy blonde wig. Is she really the Devil;
the one pulling Julian's strings; the one that he's been waiting here
for? At heart he has a sense of honour, seen when he learns the reasons
for his brother's death, but something seemingly unacceptable to the
evil dripping from his mother. Revenge begets revenge.
But they are not alone - the death of Julian's brother sparks police officer Chang's (Vithaya Pansringarm) interest in them. A quiet but effectively lethal man. An avenging,
wrathful God even, meting out punishment to sinners from the blade of
his sword. Julian knows he deserves to suffer, he wants to be judged for
his sins, he wants to feel the swathe of the sword, even if it means
picking a fight with God to get his just punishment. He is a
righteous man struggling as the Devil pulls at him. A man who wants to
take a sword to the Devil but despises the ability of his hands to do so. This is the world Julian is lost in, perhaps
The visual style of Only God Forgives offers a striking
representation of damnation. Hues of red and darkness amidst beautifully
framed and composed shots enhance the detachment of this place and make
the scenes of brutal ultraviolence even less surprising. It's never
short of stunning to look at. Meanwhile a score that from the start
shudders under its immense weight of portent, enhanced with the rhythm and booming of Thai
drumming, ensures a deep undercurrent of unease. Mix this with minimal
amounts of dialogue and Chang's karaoke, which ratchets up the level of
local weirdness, and the effect is overwhelming.
Darkness pervades Only God Forgives. It's a gripping descent into
the fractured world of a man facing his demons and the empty possibility of salvation.
Gosling is the perfect choice - a master of quiet, enigmatic moodiness,
yet stylish and good looking enough for the films arty visual approach.
It's beautiful to look at, but intentionally weird and obtuse enough to
frustrate many. It's full of fascinating themes, which it tempers with a
savage violence. This ain't Drive mark II. This ain't a light watch.
This is all the better for not being either of those things. Only God
Forgives is a superb spiral into hell.