In that regard, not only does Refn’s latest, Only God Forgives, fit snuggly into his familiar vision, but it is perhaps the most daring portrait of hell the director has ever put on screen. Relentless in its pace, tone and aggressive material, Only God Forgives is an aesthetically gorgeous look of inferno amidst fury.
Upon learning the circumstances surrounding his brother’s death, Julian elects to do nothing. He thinks his brother deserved what happened to him, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. Hard for most people, save Julian and Billy’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) a terrifying Lady Macbeth of sorts, who flies into town and demands that Julian exact revenge.
Essentially, Only God Forgives boils down to a simple revenge film. An adult boy with mommy issues battles a ruthless police Lieutenant to achieve justice. But this is no straight story. There are things that are difficult to explain. Extended sequences of deliberately obscured imagery. For example (and do try to stay with me here), a few scenes after Chang chops off the arm of the man who killed Billy, Julian is seen watching a prostitute masturbating. While she masturbates, Julian envisions opening a door in a hallway, only to have Chang chop his arm off. Now, at this point, Julian hasn’t met Chang, and doesn’t know about the man who got his arm chopped off. In this stark encapsulation of hell, there are no cinematic rules. Refn’s bulks at convention and instead dares us to follow. It’s a teasing game that will entice some, and infuriate others.
Violence. Refn likes it. He likes exploring what it does to people – what we’re willing to take and what we’re willing to do. I have yet to see a Refn film that doesn’t contain moments of extreme violence, and Only God Forgives is certainly no exception. Most of the brutality in the film is achieved at the hands of Chang, a sadistic, ruthless man with a strict code of morals. He gains information through laboriously tortuous means, but he does it for a purpose. Whether or not you agree with that purpose is up to you.
More so than the physical violence in the film, I found the emotional devastation of Only God Forgives to be its most gruesome aspect. In this regard, Kristin Scott Thomas is the star. As Crystal, Thomas gets to play her most deliciously repulsive character to date. A woman who berates everyone in order to get her way; the vile she verbally spits to her son is as lacerating as Chang’s sword. This is very smart casting and very bold acting. She is, by long and far, the highlight of the film.
Which is saying a lot, as I feel there is plenty to appreciate. Cliff Martinez’s music is some of the best work he’s done yet, while Larry Smith’s cinematography does wonders with the harsh neon that splatters Bangkok. There wasn’t a single still frame of this film that didn’t look stunning. And, as he proved in Drive, Gosling fits superbly into Refn’s vision. He’s still; always thinking, rarely stepping outside of his complacent bounds. But like all men who remain still, at some point they must move, and when they do, look out.
The film has split audiences sharply. Some will argue it is an emotionally ice cold, pop cinema masterpiece, while others will decry it as torture porn void of purpose. As I watched Only God Forgives a few days ago, my mind occasionally shifted to both of those notions. I battled with myself about what I was watching. Was Only God Forgives something special – something new and bold and exquisite? Or was it an offensive, failed exercise? I can’t promise that I’m more certain of how I feel about the movie now than I did then. But what I knew from roughly the 10-minute mark of the movie remains today: Abandon all faith, ye who enter here. B