Through Nicolas Winding Refn’s electrifying direction and Ryan Gosling’s cold performance, Drive is without a doubt one of the most celebrated films from this decade. It has been praised to kingdom come by film fans all across the global and has no doubt introduced many a young film fan to the magic of cinema. Now the pair are back, with their gritty and violent revenge drama Only God Forgives. The film has increased interest due to its Drive connection and going into 2013 was one of the most anticipated films of the year. Now it is out for all to see, does it hold up to the hype or is it a massive let-down?
Set in excruciatingly hot Bangkok, Thailand, the film follows Julian, an American expat who spends his day running a boxing club and the Thai side of his mother’s drug smuggling empire. One night his older brother Billy goes on a drunken rampage, eventually raping and murdering an underage prostitute. The corrupt police department allow Billy to be murdered by the girl’s grieving father, and thus sparking a chain of events that sees Julian’s revenge-fuelled mother come to Bangkok. Now Julian must make a choice, kill all those involved to save what remains of his family or sit-back and watch as Thailand destroys everything dear to him.
From the outset it is clear, Only God Forgives isn’t Drive in Thailand, it is its own beast and needs to be treated as much. Refn builds a film that is light on dialogue, contains a plot that is mostly unexplained and is slow and methodical in its build. If it had to be compared to his other work the one that instantly stands out is Valhalla Rising. To the slight detriment of the film, Refn isn’t interested in explaining anything, instead encouraging the audience to work it out themselves. The mystery though doesn’t seem to be as deep as he believes it to be and the unravelling of the mystery may prove a tedious task for some. Still, Refn’s direction is bold and striking. He is constantly redefining how his technique, making him a very interesting film-maker to observe.
Refn’s direction is solid, but he is helped immensely by his co-conspirators. Composer Cliff Martinez and director of photography Larry Smith are the two that add the most. Their work is most noticeable in the eerie and unsettling dream-sequences. Martinez is seemingly channelling 1970s horror films and it works, giving the film a near-constant air of unease. Whilst it isn’t a score that works away from the film, it is a score the enhances the film in every conceivable way. Also enhancing is Larry Smith’s neon drenched, hot soaked cinematography. Much like Martinez, his work is aimed to unsettle and his half-lit scenes and dark corridors are a brilliant and disturbing choice. He is a cinematographer I look forward to seeing more from.
When it comes to the cast, it is Vithaya Pansringarm that comes out king. His performance as Lt. Chang is nothing sort of a revelation. Told to act like God, he does exactly that, filling each scene with cold and calculating menace. Kristen Scott Thomas puts forward a great evil mother, a role unlike anything I’ve seen her in before. Whilst her character seems to be mostly all talk, Scott Thomas’ performance does add extra venom to the poisonous matriarch. Ryan Gosling stands as the only lead actor not delivering here. He plays his cold and distant character to easily, seemingly phoning it in and working on auto-pilot. Gosling does have a couple of strong scenes, his scenes with Rhatha Phongam’s Mai are great, but he doesn’t deliver a complete performance.
Frankly, the negativity towards Only God Forgives is baffling and seems to stem purely from the love for Drive. Audiences need to go in knowing that they are completely different films. Refn isn’t interested in telling the same story twice and instead crafts an art-house revenge film. Thanks mostly to the work from Cliff Martinez and Larry Smith, the film is elevated by the visual and sonic elements and as such operates as a sort-of cerebral horror. Audiences may struggle with the mystery, but the horror side is instantly unsettling and confronting. Whether Only God Forgives has the legs or not will be decided over time, but immediately it is an absorbing and disturbing shot of adrenaline and is not an experience that will be easily forgotten.