OnlyGodForgives-1Back in the far gone days of 2011, Ryan Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn paired together and produced a potent concoction that came to be known as Drive. My favourite (and numerous others) of that year, Drive was a film that seemingly came out of nowhere, filled to the sun-roof with style, and marked Refn as a one-of-a-kind auteur. Refn was never a director I entirely took notice of before Drive. I had seen Valhalla Rising and was left cold and disturbed, but I had been impressed with his brutal but captivating bio-pic Bronson. It would be fair to say that Drive is the least Refn-ensian of his back catalogue. And now, re-teaming with his Drive leading man, he has perhaps made the most Refn-ensian movie he could, to polarizing and uncomfortable results. And yet, it is impossible to tear your eyes away from it.

Gosling plays Julian, an American expatriate who runs a Muay Thai boxing club in Bangkok with his brother Billy (Tom Burke), which is actually a front for a drug smuggling operation. After his somewhat disturbed brother rapes and murders an underage prostitute, Billy himself is swiftly brutally murdered by the girl’s father, who was given permission to by Police Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) – who is known as the Angel of Vengeance. After sparing his brother’s killer’s life, Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott-Thomas) arrives on the scene demanding blood and vengeance for the death of her first born. Julian soon finds himself torn between his twisted feelings of devotion towards his mother and his admiration and fascination with this figure known as The Angel of Vengeance.

Much has been made of the violence and content of Only God Forgives. Following its debut at Cannes, it was met with a mixture of applause and jeering. It is incredibly violent. We see heads caved in, eyes gauged out, arms cut off, and Gosling’s beaten to a pulp. OnlyGodForgives-2But, my argument to that is, you do not watch a Nicolas Winding Refn movie expecting a bloodless affair. His films are a visceral experience in every possible way, and one such way is with extreme violence. His films are designed to put you in a blender and shake you up on the highest setting, making sure you take in every single ingredient. Drive certainly did this, and while Only God Forgives is most definitely a more violent affair than the pair’s last effort, it is not something that I found particularly troubling or all that disturbing. You can blame that on desensitization, but that’s not to say nothing in this film got under my skin. Much of it crawled underneath my un-squemish exterior and has refused to let go, even as I write this review for you now.

The relationship and actions of characters within this seedy world of Bangkok is what truly disturbs and marks Only God Forgives as an uncomfortable experience. It is incredibly heavy on its Freudian relationship between Crystal and Julian and it does not offer anything new in regards to the dynamic of a twisted mother-son relationship, but the complexity of Julian allows for this criticism to fall into the background. Julian’s devotion to his mother places him at odds in every facet of his life. He strives for a sexual and personal connection with other female characters, but his development and relationship with his mother has rendered him incapable of finding the right way in which to do so. His need to please his mother also effects his moral compass; he knows quite plainly that his brother got what he deserved, but his mother’s presence and pressure forces him to act upon a task that he does not wish to uptake. Gosling plays Julian as a man of, once again, very few words. His steely gaze hints just enough for you to speculate on the great fluctuation of feeling and desire within this troubled man’s soul. If the Driver was a simmering pot, Julian is one who is a second away from boiling over.

OnlyGodForgives-3Kristin Scott-Thomas delivers a much louder performance than Gosling (she only needed to say 20 lines for that to be the case anyway) in a blistering performance as the morally ugly and utterly abhorrent mother Crystal. She is a character who deserves no shred of sympathy; the type of women who shrugs off her son’s rape and murder of a 16 year-old girl with the remark ‘I’m sure he had his reasons’. The performance from Scott-Thomas does not allow you to have any shred of sympathy for this character, and rightly so; she is poisonous, devious, and deserves everything that comes to her. And Scott-Thomas revels in the opportunity to play such a morally disgusting character. The time devoted to Crystal and Julian’s relationship is what inspires the more uncomfortable and skin-crawling aspects of the movie, accentuated with bursts of extreme violence.

On the other side of the moral spectrum is Chang, The Angel of Vengeance. Omnipotent, graceful, intimidating, but wholly righteous, Chang is by no means the antagonist of this movie; more so, he is the hero. The performance of Vithaya Pansringarm is stunning. He is driven, effortless, and utterly compelling on the screen, demanding your full attention. Chang is the Agent of God in this movie and it needs a performance of confidence and skill to sell it, and Pansringarm, an unknown, does so with ease. His Thai boxing is smooth, his singing affecting – his is a performance of careful craft, executed with modesty and dignity.

While sometimes what is in Refn’s frame makes the viewer uncomfortable, it is very hard for one to draw their eyes away from the proceedings. His composition, lighting, and movement is utterly hypnotic, evoking memories of Kubrick. With many a tension OnlyGodForgives-4inducing long shot and an ambient atmosphere, Refn paints Bangkok as a city of sin, but also of magnificent beauty. The cinematography is to die for, a literal feast for the eyes, even in the scenes of violence and awkwardness, leading to a gorgeous aesthetic. Refn entices you in and refuses to let go once he has you, no matter how much you may wish to look away. This is a Drive reunion in more ways than one as well, with composer Cliff Martinez also coming back to join the party, producing an equally, if not more so, original score that enforces the ambient atmosphere, neon lighting, and cultural placing. A masterpiece of atmospheric scoring.

Only God Forgives is a hard film to recommend. Viewing it is not a comfortable experience, but it is one that is rather hard to forget about. The film most certainly stays with you, and matures well on the mind as you begin to think about the deeper meanings behind its character relationships and use of violence. Impossible to love, but impossible to ignore; Refn has most certainly produced a polarizing movie that will attack the senses with a ferocity unlike no other director working today. A unique movie that will surely, even if you utterly loathe it, stay with you for many months to come.

4/5- Those expecting a Drive 2 will be left wanting; this is Refn off the leash. An uncomfortable, pretentious, but utterly mesmerizing and hypnotic experience into a neon-laced underworld unlike any other.

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