Living in Bangkok, American ex-pat Julian (Gosling) manages a Thai boxing club as a front for his family’s drug smuggling operation. After his older brother is killed, however, Julian’s domineering mother (Thomas) demands that he find and punish the man responsible, a mysterious local cop known as The Angel Of Vengeance (Pansringarm)…
Despite marking the eagerly-anticipated reunion of Ryan Gosling and Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, Only God Forgives doesn’t provide a similar experience to Drive. An abstract mood piece, this languid revenge thriller is far more surreal and dream-like, taking the pared-down approach that worked so well in their spellbinding neo-noir and turning the experimental dial up several notches. Similarly light on dialogue, Refn once again punctuates long – key word – spells of silence with bursts of the old ultra violence. Here, though, the retro cool is replaced with a woozy voyage into purgatory, boasting more in common with Refn’s previous work – such as Valhalla Rising or Fear X – than the aforementioned Drive.
Subsequently, the uncompromising auteur’s second collaboration with Gosling (Only Gos Forgives?) is certain to split opinion right down the middle. While some viewers will find an immersive journey worth surrendering to, others will be left completely baffled. Though fans of abstract cinema may welcome the film’s elusive approach to character and narrative, anyone hoping for a conventional slice of Gosling should prepare for disappointment. Walkouts, it should be noted, are inevitable in certain quarters. It’s that sort of film. It’s that sort of experience. Despite proving quietly compelling at times, the surreal interludes are a touch repetitive and the meandering pace is more than a little punishing, even if Refn occasionally spices things up with a few remarkably violent eruptions. The sequence with knife-sharp chopsticks, for example, is beyond horrific.
There’s little doubt that it looks fantastic, though, with every scene drenched in some form of neon light or red glow. Atmospheric and ultra-stylised, Cliff Martinez’s droning score fills the film with an other-worldly sense of dread, while Larry Smith’s Kubrickian tracking shots elevate the many, many sequences of characters gliding along alleyways and corridors. Gosling, in a role originally intended for Luke Evans, is purposefully blank and impotent, meaning that Julian doesn’t allow him much room to shine. But both Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm are outstanding as the dominant, foul-mouthed mother and unbeatable opponent, respectively.
More of an abstract mood piece than a traditional narrative film, Only God Forgives isn’t another Drive. Certain to split opinion down the middle, it’s both a frustrating experience and immensely stylish.