8 August 2013

Review: Only God Forgives

(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 forever.

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.

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