In the lead-up to the release of Only God Forgives, director Nicolas Winding Refn gave an interview where he referred to himself as “a pornographer”, compelled to making images that arouse him without necessarily processing what they mean or what effect they might have on an audience. A few months before, Only God Forgives had premiered to the worst reception of any film in competition at Cannes (preceding a string of negative write-ups upon release), the opposite of the rapture that had greeted Refn’s Drive two years earlier, when he earned a standing ovation, a best director prize and the runway for his biggest commercial success by far. What had changed so much from one film to another?
The answer is everything and nothing. Like any pornographer, there’s a part of Refn that’s simply perverse: Only God Forgives again places a largely stoic Ryan Gosling in a nocturnal underworld of depravity and ultra-violence, but strips away all of the genre thrills that made Drive such a pleasure – the opening getaway sequence, with its bursts of speed and hide-and-go-seek gamesmanship with the police; a pawnshop robbery gone horribly awry; Albert Brooks’ delicious cast-against-type performance as a vicious gangster. In their place, Refn imposes an atmosphere of somnambulant dread and inevitably, a neon nightmare that unfurls in slow motion.
Only God Forgives exists in a kind of cinematic no man’s land, too arch for the genre fans and too grotesque for the arthouse set. And yet it’s fully in keeping with Refn’s evolution as a film-maker, which started with the kicked-up pulp of his Pusher trilogy and has grown in formal rigor ever since, pivoting on a Norse adventure film, 2009’s Valhalla Rising, that starts as a Crusades bloodbath and grows more and more abstract as it goes along. For all of Refn’s evident skill at staging punchy action sequences, he’s become increasingly interested in deconstructing and manipulating our expectations of what genre movies should be. That’s maddening. It’s also, in the right frame of mind, mesmerizing.
Opening the film in bright reds and deep blacks, Refn is making noir in color, replacing the single-source black-and-white of American classics with an equally eye-catching study in contrasts. Few neo-noirs have made such a strong visual impression, because they don’t limit their visual palette as much as Refn does here – every frame is carved with precise color and light, like the fussed-over panels of a graphic novel. Combined with the humming synths of Cliff Martinez – who had composed the score for Drive, too, as well as many Steven Soderbergh movies – the film accomplishes more through mood than action, capturing the dilemma of an antihero who exists in a paralyzing state of moral limbo.
As Julian, a boxing-club manager and drug dealer, Gosling plays a man who’s part and apart from the Bangkok underworld, someone who offers and indulges in vice, but discovers that he has his limits. His older brother Billy has no such qualms: he’s shown prowling a brothel for a 14-year-old before raping and murdering a prostitute two years older. Their mother Crystal is equally deranged. Played by Kristin Scott Thomas in a performance that upends her image as radically as Brooks in Drive, Crystal arrives in Bangkok seeking revenge when Billy himself is killed by the victim’s father. That puts them into conflict with Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a sword-wielding police lieutenant with an extrajudicial approach to the law enforcement.
There’s a lot that’s funny, intentionally and unintentionally, about Only God Forgives, starting with the revelation of Julian’s status as the cuckold in his brother’s oedipal relationship with their mother. Played straight, the film would be cardboard juvenilia, a thinly plotted story of retribution marked by exoticism and ultra-violence. But Refn keeps the focus on Gosling as a kind of smarmy Hamlet, forced into this perilous position of having to do his mother’s bidding while understanding the moral wrong of it. His indecisiveness bleeds into a comical fight scene with Chang where he doesn’t land a punch, which may be simple ineptitude, but also reveals a lack of conviction.
Much of Refn’s self-seriousness here is a “Kick Me” sign, culminating in a shot where Julian’s longing for his mother’s absent warmth takes a grotesquely literal form. But Only God Forgives has a dreamlike vividness that’s neither easily conjured or easily shaken, in service of a character who’s been rendered a zombie by circumstance, stumbling through events he doesn’t have the standing or courage to stop. He embodies all that’s frustrating about the film – and all that’s audacious about it, too.