The first time Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn teamed with former Mouseketeer Ryan Gosling, the result was Drive, a retro Getaway flick that tightroped between bursts of ultraviolence and blasts of sonic pop. Their latest collaboration, Only God Forgives, couldn’t be more different, and certainly won’t inspire the devotion of scorpion jacketed cosplayers.
Refn has made a career out of crime. He directed an entire trilogy about Scandinavian drug dealers (Pusher), and plumbed the depths of recidivism in Bronson. With the exception of Valhalla Rising, his one-eyed Viking picture, Refn has cultivated a morbid fascination with sociopaths, but has never come close to revealing what actually makes them tick. Until now.
This Bangkok-set fever-dream, which follows Gosling’s hunt for the man who killed his brother, is uncomfortably Oedipal, hypnotically Freudian and supremely stylish. There’s nothing quite as perplexing as when pretty-boy Gosling gets his ass kicked while wearing a trim three-piece suit. His mother, played by Kristen Scott Thomas, watching from the shadows.
In the beginning, she storms the screen, spewing bile. Spurring Gosling’s character to exact her revenge upon the police chief responsible for the death of her eldest son; despite that fact he was a pedophile who had it coming. Gosling obeys, like a good little boy. That’s when the shit, and arterial bloodspray, hits the ceiling fans.
The film is almost entirely nocturnal. A South-Asian hellscape littered with stray-dogs and prostitutes. There are long stretches without any dialogue, where the unsettling synth score by Cliff Martinez leads the way through Bangkok’s festering red-light back-alleys. Violence erupts, always suddenly, amidst the splashes of nighttime neon.
But there’s a lot more going on here than just atmospherics. Gosling and Thomas are beyond twisted and ultimately unknowable. Vithaya Pansringarm rounds out the unholy trinity, playing the police chief who upholds the law while dismembering thugs. His uniformed subordinates standing idly by. Afterwards he purifies himself by belting out ballads at a karaoke club. Again, his uniformed subordinates standing idly by. He's the only sympathetic character, the only one with a moral centre. Despite being the guy who started this whole damn mess.
Only God Forgives owes a debt to Scorsese and Schrader’s complex character studies. The self-loathing and self-flagellation of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull informing Gosling’s passive-aggressive whelp. But even until the bitter end he remains a submissive cypher.
The Davids, Lynch and Croneberg, are on display here too. Despite the hallucinations and severed limbs, things never get quite as trippy. Refn seem to be pulling his punches, like Gosling’s character. I can’t tell if it’s matter of restraint or a case of listlessness. Though the duo is cashing in on the cult cred of Drive this is a mighty tough sell, even for the arthouse crowd. Only God Forgives is a sordid trip that goes straight to hell... but not back again.