Fair warning readers, I'm going to use a term to describe Only God Forgives that contains foul language. Not that any kids would read a review of a Nicolas Winding Refn film, but in the case of Only God Forgives it's one of the rare justifiable times to swear, and there's no doubt that Refn himself would appreciate calling his film utterly batshit insane, and brilliantly fucked up. He wants us to react like that, for Refn is a director who will gladly take in negative reviews if it means the film he has made causes a reaction in the audience. Only God Forgives is full of reacting beats, and rather than have a concise story it opts to bring viewers into a neon-noir nightmare that David Lynch might produce after watching a whole heap of Takashi Miike.
In a mostly-nighttime Bangkok two brothers make a living off of underground fighting, but when one brother is murdered, their mother, Kristin Scott Thomas, flies in to keep the house together, and get the revenge that surviving brother Julian, Ryan Gosling, can't seem to satisfy her with. The revenge that she wants is from knife-wielding, stoic and controlled cop Chang, Vithaya Pansringarm, but that's easier said, with an utterly foul mouth, than done.
What follows is a gloriously self-indulgent, artistic, visually arresting hour and a half drenched in blood, neon and the remnants of Hollywood and Hong Kong action cinema. Refn seemingly aims to deconstruct the Driver we saw in his previous film, silent, staring off, violent but simple, from anti-hero to utterly useless and almost embarrassing, and he does so with a gleeful eye. One of the few lines Gosling gets to say, "Wanna Fight?", is the build-up to a moment of huge change for Ryan Gosling the actor, the pin-up, the man everyone adores and the hero. We've seen the pictures, but to see what happens actually happen, and what then follows on from there, is so fantastic that it's hard to justify it in words.
Gosling isn't front and centre in this film, a film that has three protagonists and none at the same time, as Kristin Scott Thomas' mother storms into the film throwing the C-word around and giving Julian a lot of abuse, whilst looking insane, and yet even she can't steal the show. As stoic and silent as Chang is, the morally righteous cop that can't be harmed, handles blades well and is always there to right wrongs, and then sing karaoke songs, is just outstanding. This character is so watchable, even when the things he is doing should be disgusting, and Refn knows it. Whilst Only God Forgives shies away from the visual violence compared to his other works, the times it does take a watchful eye on a slicing or a stabbing, and mainly with Chang, it is just splendid. The improvisation of the character to use weapons made of objects in the environment harkens back to classic Hong Kong action flicks, and his monologuing to Hollywood cinema, but the degree of torture, of pain, that he puts men, and sometimes even women, into isn't as shocking as it is enjoyable. Sick as it may be, Refn and as such the audience treat the violence of Chang as more than cathartic, as perhaps climactic, erotic, orgasmic. Retribution and then some.
The screenplay is mostly quiet, dialogue wise, so it makes sense to praise both Cliff Martinez whose score for this might just beat Drive for his best work, and DoP Larry Smith makes magic not just out of the reds, yellows and blues that mostly take over entire scenes, but the framing of the film. For a film that is shot flat, a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the focus on framing is even stronger when it comes to splitting the image into three, and between long corridors and doorways that frame a character in the middle of shot, the imagery of Chang practicing his bladesmanship in the middle of the frame as old and new world fight for dominance around him is stunning, whilst Gosling's wrists split across the frame in a way that any Room 237 interviewee would love to superimpose. Artistically, Only God Forgives is the most impressive looking film of the year, and what sterling score it has too. As an audio/visual experience, Only God Forgives is a treat.
Only God Forgives is hard to pin down because narratively it's short and simple, with so many elements of interpretation and discussion, but it never truly feels pretentious like films of this style could do. Sure there's a lot of nothing in Only God Forgives, staring, build up, music and visuals without much going on, but it all feels atmospheric, like good David Lynch or Terrence Malick, just with a ton more blood spilling all over the shop. Only God Forgives is insane, glorious, brilliant, demented and truly one of a kind. Embrace this film, I doubt even Refn will make a film like this again. Vying for the best film of the year, a must see.