I remember seeing Fear X at FrightFest 10 years ago and witnessing a rather terse Q&A session with filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, where he took issue with the accusation of being nothing more than a Lynch wannabe by a put out audience member who absolutely hated the film. This is the sort of reaction that has plagued Refn throughout his career, and he has proven himself to be a real love him or hate him director. The exception came with perhaps his most accessible film to date, Drive, which saw him garner widespread success and acclaim. Now he’s teamed up with Ryan Gosling once more for this hyper-violent Bangkok set thriller that has polarised audiences like no other film this year. Reviews are either singing its praises or bemoaning its indulgences; there is no middle ground between the 1 star and the 5 star reviews, an accomplishment that Refn seems fairly at ease with.
Going back to 2003, I liked Fear X a lot and I’ve been a regular admirer of Refn’s work ever since, and whilst it is easy (and also true) to describe his work as Lynchian, I don’t see that as a criticism necessarily. Lynch is a filmmaker like no other, and whilst I will admit to worshiping at his altar in a particularly clichéd film fan sort of a way, as an adjective I believe that “Lynchian” is thrown around too much to describe pretty much anything that is a little bit weird. To me it means more than simply likening something to the work of Lynch, and I tend to use it sparingly because it is such a lazy phrase. For me it’s more than just a descriptor of oddness, it is more specifically about the characters, how they don’t really act like people do in the real world; there are awkward pauses in conversations, lingering looks that last longer than is comfortable, and an all-encompassing sense of dread that pervades every scene and line of dialogue. Even though every single other review references Lynch and I hate to jump on the bandwagon, it is very apt when describing Only God Forgives and the overwhelming otherness that it exudes. Refn is also clearly more than just a copycat director. His reference points may occasionally lack subtlety but this is a wholly original piece of filmmaking, as are his other works.
Another word I don’t like to throw around without good reason is pornography, as it has become so synonymous with the so-called “torture porn” genre, a term I’ve never liked or felt comfortable with. However, in the case of Only God Forgives, it is sort of like pornography, in the way that pornography bears little to no similarity to actual real life sex; it’s stylised, exaggerated, awfully well lit… Only God Forgives is pornographic in the way it portrays violence, which is excessive and bears little resemblance to reality. It’s overtly stylised and looks fantastic, and like porn, it has a place and serves a purpose. Obviously though, it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste and as it is being heavily marketed to a mainstream audience as some sort of Drive follow-up, I can foresee walk-outs galore at multiplexes across the country. Whatever you do, don’t go in expecting Drive 2 because not only will you be sorely disappointed, but you’ll also probably be very confused.
The plot, what there is of one, centres around Julian (an all but mute Ryan Gosling) who runs a Thai boxing club as a front for a drug trafficking business with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). The murder of Billy prompts the arrival of their mother, walking Oedipus complex and matriarch from hell, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). It’s interesting that the film is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky because Crystal is perhaps the most batshit insane and manipulative screen mother since Concha in Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre. Her control over Julian is absolute and she knows how to get exactly what she wants from him. It’s even implied that perhaps her relationship with Billy went a step farther into the realms of Freudian inappropriateness and there is a charming scene where she compares the sizes of her son’s cocks over dinner. I’m also not sure if I’ve quite recovered from hearing the beautiful and generally very classy Kristin Scott Thomas say the words “cum dumpster”. Either way, she is absolutely fantastic in this and I think I’m now slightly in love with her.
Julian proves himself to be a disappointment after not having sought revenge on those responsible for Billy’s death so Crystal takes matters into her own hands, resulting in nothing particularly nice for anyone concerned. Retired cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is called upon to sort the mess out and he certainly has a way of getting things done, a god-like figure who brandishes a machete and loves a bit of karaoke that Julian realises he must challenge to a fight. I don’t want to talk too much about what happens in the film, as I think it works best going in cold and also because what exactly is going on is never particularly clear anyway. This is a film to be experienced, not explained.
Only God Forgives is a visually impressive film; every single frame is executed to perfection and its style is faultless. Regardless of your opinions of his work, Refn is a skilled filmmaker and along with cinematographer Larry Smith and art directors Russell Barnes and Witoon Suanyai he has created a visual feast that warrants multiple viewings. Cliff Martinez also provides a score that rivals and perhaps even exceeds his work on Drive, undeniably cool and a provocative ear pounding accompaniment to the visual assault on screen. I personally loved Only God Forgives, it may be Refn’s best film to date in my opinion and I enjoyed its ambition and excesses. Admittedly I love this sort of thing and it is the kind of pretention that I can really get behind and admire: it’s entirely inaccessible, self-indulgent, brutally violent, thought provoking, meanderingly slow at points and I absolutely loved it. This is my film of the year so far and I can’t wait to see it again.