Spellbinding, visionary and deeply affecting, Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to Drive is one of the absolute must-sees of the year.
Gorgeous, mysterious, immersive, disturbing, dreamlike: with his new film, Nicolas Winding Refn has created one of those beguiling cinematic universes that you don’t want to leave when the credits roll.
From his hard-hitting debut Pusher, via the creepy Fear X, the violent machismo of Bronson and the mythical savagery of Valhalla Rising, Winding Refn has been exploring various facets of the male identity. With Drive in 2011, he has turned to a moodier masculinity, with the help of reluctant heartthrob Ryan Gosling. A bolder, more challenging film, Only God Forgives continues in the same vein, with Gosling playing another great, reticent, melancholy character of the kind he does so well.
Gosling’s Julian runs a boxing club in Thailand, which acts as a cover for his brother Billy’s drug trafficking. When Billy rapes and kills a young Thai prostitute, Julian is forced to deal with the consequences, and must face his overbearing mother Crystal and the fearsome police chief Chang. Verbally economical and visually sumptuous, the film relies on symbolic actions and images rather than words to tell its story – among some of the most memorable, a quixotic fight in a deserted boxing club, surreal police karaoke, a beautiful girl behind the gold curtain of a lapdancing club, and a scene of biblical violence amid a party of dressed-up girls with their eyes shut. The elliptical narrative is brilliantly edited, weaving together dream and reality until the boundaries are completely blurred, and connecting separate times and spaces to create intimate, invisible psychic ties between the characters.
In the Q&A that followed the screening, Winding Refn said that the film was about the idea of fighting God. Chang is indeed a God-like character, of the Old Testament kind, meting out a vengeful justice with an infallible sword and unwavering hand. In the opposite camp, Julian is a stranger in an unfamiliar land – which may well be his own mind – trying to cut a moral path in an immoral human jungle, fighting a doomed fight against forces too mighty, both inside and outside of himself.
The film’s sophisticated ideas are fleshed out by the excellent cast. Gosling brings the powerful mix of poignant sadness and underlying menace that makes him such a compelling actor to watch in Drive and The Place beyond the Pines. Kristin Scott-Thomas is a revelation as the bitchy, selfish, domineering, incestuous mother, while Vithaya Pansringarm has the commanding presence and awe-inspiring authority required for his role as Chang.
With its rich colours and intricate patterns, its sensual, oppressive light and oblique storytelling, and at its centre, a laconic, supernaturally powerful, sword-wielding protagonist, Only God Forgives feels like a very Asian movie, mixing the exquisite aesthetic sense of Chinese filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou with the brutal anti-heroes of Takeshi Kitano. In this darkly seductive, exotic cinematic land nestles the Heart of Darkness-type story (a stunning early sequence that sees Billy and Julian engaged in enigmatic drug talk in a shadowy room, with only their eyes lit, is reminiscent of the ending of Apocalypse Now). Winding Refn makes the influences and references his own with intelligence and imagination, producing his most accomplished work to date. Spellbinding, visionary, ambitious and deeply affecting, Only God Forgives is one of the absolute must-sees of the year.
Watch the trailer: