Only God Forgives – Winding Refn’s neon-soaked, highly-stylised meditation on revenge and brutality – is the sort of movie that film buffs like to build cults around. Cults of adulation and cults of hate. Viewers will love and loathe Only God Forgives in equal measure. The film’s one unarguable quality is that it’s impossible to dismiss with a simple shrug.
Gosling plays Julian, a stoic ne’er-do-well who runs a Bangkok Muay Thai boxing club as a front for a drug dealing operation he presides over with his brother Billy (Burke). Billy, for his part, is a misogynist nutcase with a proclivity for sex with minors and one night he gets carried away and leaves an underage prostitute in a pool of blood. The cops bring in the girl’s father, whom they allow to beat Billy to death – after which their commanding officer, another tight-lipped, one-note psychopath named Chang (Pansringarm), slices the man’s arm off for pimping out his daughter in the first place.
Billy’s death and Julian’s subsequent refusal to kill the man responsible brings their mother Crystal (Scott Thomas) to Bangkok. Upon hearing about Julian’s reluctance to avenge his brother, Crystal puts a hit out on both Billy’s killer and Chang. By targeting the latter, she puts herself, her son and everyone in his organisation in the crosshairs of the most lethal killing machine in the city.
The fact that the plot quickly descends into bloodletting shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, since nearly every single character in Only God Forgives is borderline psychotic. Gosling’s Julian initially comes across as a doe-eyed, laconic reticent, but his penchant for exploding with violence and some particularly dark dream sequences reveal him to be a barely contained coil of rage. Pansringarm’s Chang is even more unhinged, and is only discernable as an agent of the law by virtue of the fact that his most violent activities take place in the presence of his fellow officers – who incidentally, seem to have no problem with them. His face is a mask of steely-eyed impassiveness throughout, whether he’s singing karaoke or torturing information out a suspect by cutting out their eyes with a fruit knife.
The most entertaining out of all of them is Scott Thomas, who plays Crystal as an abominable harridan whose lust for revenge for her elder son’s death reveals a love for Billy can only be described as oedipal. The scene in which she berates Julian for at dinner in front of his prostitute girlfriend, Mai (Phongam), is worth the price of admission alone. Mai, incidentally, is the only main character in the entire production that is neither a victim nor a murderer and subsequently is probably the only one left with any sense of worth by the time the credits roll.
It’s tempting to see Only God Forgives as a companion piece to Winding Refn’s last collaboration with Gosling, Drive. Like its predecessor, Only God Forgives presents a pulp crime thriller with the baroque grandeur of a classic opera. However, a better reference point is David Lynch’s opaque neo-noir Lost Highway, and not just because both films contain scenes of bone-crunching violence and are shot through with an atmosphere of dread thick enough to choke on.
Both begin by placing morally questionable characters in a life-altering quandary, but this straight-forward set-up quickly devolves into a surreal series of events that soon take on an almost dream-like quality. The line between what is real and what is imagined starts to blur early on and, while the plot maintains a foot in the waking world, Only God Forgives contains scenes that’ll leave audiences perplexed as to whether they exist outside the mind of the film’s characters.
Of course, the lack of any actual denouement coupled with its garish style will repel as many as it attracts. It’s easy to slate Only God Forgives as pretentious, hollow and cheaply and gratuitously violent. Then again, you could argue it’s a visually sumptuous spectacle that strips action movie tropes to their bare bones and ties them in knots until they scream. Like all the best cult films, Only God Forgives may not be everyone’s cup of tea as a viewing experience, but it’s incredibly fun to argue about.
EXTRAS ★★ An audio commentary with director Refn; a Behind The Scenes featurette (12:46); two trailers; and three artwork galleries.