Having seen this Bangkok set crime thriller twice since its release in August 2013 I can now say with some certainty that the bulk of the critics that booed Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest movie at Cannes press screening were wrong. Only God Forgives (2012) is a brilliant antidote to all these ‘feel good movies’ that the cinema going public are accused of clambering after. It’s that slap across the face that French director Mathieu Kassovitze was talking about in a Guardian newspaper interview about his film Rebellion (2011). It’s strikingly menacing, brutally violent and its climatic fight scene is as beautifully choreographed as any thing you would have seen on the big screen. The colour hue totally enhances the narrative, the darkness of Refn’s story is totally mesmerising.
As is the acting, with Ryan Gosling following up on his role as Driver in Drive (2011) as the uncommunicative Julian Thompson, an American expatriate living in Bangkok who runs a Muay Thai gym as a front for his dealings in the Thai criminal underworld. His brother Billy (Tom Burke) is beaten to death, sanctioned by the police Lieutenant, Chang, (Vithaya Pansringarm) known as the angel of vengeance, by the pimp father of a sixteen-year-old prostitute that Billy has just killed. Its when the brothers domineering mother Crystal arrives from America to extract vengeance for the killing of her first born that things start to get very messy. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Crystal, the sexy evil mother from hell whose relationship with her sons borders the incestuous, a role that’s different from what we have come to expect from this wonderfully versatile actress.
It’s a modern day film noir, an hallucinatory fable, that brings to mind the work of Wong Kar Wai (As Tears Go By 1988 and Fallen Angels 1995) and the Argentinian director Gasper Noe whose Tokyo set Enter the Void (2009) is similar in its ambiance. Bizarre set pieces litter the movie, where at times the violence is almost unwatchable especially when karaoke enthusiast Chang is involved. Cinematography Larry Smith shoots mainly at night highlighting the neon splendour of Bangkok. Refn dedicates his film Alejandro Jodorowsky whose Santa Sangre (1989) was also infamous for scenes of mutilation of human body parts. As Philip French opined ‘Only God Forgives is a provocative oddity that like Lars von Triers recent movies looks back nostalgically to a time when it was still possible to stir up jaded audiences and shock the bourgeois’.