(Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013)
Basking in the success of Drive, Winding Refn and his star and muse Ryan Gosling indulge themselves mightily with this confounding, terrible, fascinating follow-up.
Winding Refn has indulged himself after success before, crafting the difficult, divisive Fear X to more or less scuttle his initial career momentum. Only God Forgives is more commercial than that odd, quiet little film, but it often feels deliberately antagonistic in its studied artiness, obscurity and gruelling ultra-violence.
Gosling, purportedly the lead, is really a supporting character here. He plays Julian, an American in Bangkok who runs a Thai boxing gym and a drug-dealing operation with his older brother Billy (Tom Burke, magnetic in his few scenes). When Billy is killed in revenge for his own rape and murder of a 16 year old girl, their dragon of a mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, gloriously playing against type) flies in and puts out a contract on Lt Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the Detective who arranged Billy's death. Chang emerges as the film's true protagonist, facing off against Julian and Crystal in the last act as Winding Refn devotes much screentime to following him as he practices with his sword, sings karaoke, and chats with his young daughter.
That story sounds quite simple and straightforward. But Winding Refn's treatment of it is anything but. He dedicates the film to Alejandro Jodorowsky, but there is much David Lynch too in the dream-logic which seems to govern much of the narrative here. Scenes are slowed down to a glacial crawl, all the better to appreciate the two richest, most enjoyable aspects of the production: the excellent, inventive score by Cliff Martinez and the superb cinematography by Larry Smith. That photography really is beautiful; almost every shot here could be printed off and hung from a wall. Refn and Smith create tableau and linger upon them with slow zooms and repeated cuts. Playing with filters - much of the action is bathed in red - and patterns of light, almost the entirety of the film is set in nocturnal Bangkok. This suggests Wong Kar Wai's treatment of Hong Kong as a neon city of nighttime energy and hidden lives only without any of the sense of verisimilitude in his work; Only God Forgives never remotely feels set in any sort of "real" world. Instead we have a mix of gaudy nightmare and a twisted version of the pulp-fairytale world seen in Drive. The Winding Refn film it most resembles, however, is Valhalla Rising, his delirious Viking head trip from 2009. There, the arty playing with perception and dalliance with slow cinema techniques suited the world and the themes - here they only serve to show up the hollowness of both. Here they seem silly.
Worse, the pacing and endless intense focus upon production design is utterly tedious - obscure scenes feel endless. That these longeurs are interrupted generally by scenes of awful violence - hands lopped off, brains beaten in, faces pulped, UZI massacres - feels exploitative and adolescent in it's glee.
Gosling, for his part, does little, expressing no emotion: a near-mute, passive pretty face throughout a film which is, for all its lush beauty, variously dull and offensively terrible.