It's time to meet the devil. Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling reteam to take us on a strange and spectacularly violent journey to hell.
Thud, crack. That's the sound of knuckle splitting flesh. Specifically Ryan Gosling's, whose A-list mug is beaten to a swollen, seeping pulp by Vithaya Pansringarm's metaphorical Angel of Vengeance, Chang. A retired Bangkok cop with a penchant for barbaric justice, Chang's pledge to cleanse the city's diseased soul sees him go fist-to-fist with Gosling's brooding Thai boxing club owner Julian, who ironically it turns out isn't much of a fighter.
Watching intently in the shadows is Julian's mother, Crystal (a scene-stealing Kristin Scott Thomas). Head of the family dope running business and a fearsome matriarch, Crystal has recently flown in from America to collect the body of her first-born and favourite son, Billy (Tom Burke). Heartbroken and mad on revenge, she arrives expecting her child's killer to have already been taken care of. But Julian explains that things are more complicated than at first they appear — Billy died at the hands of the father of the 16-year-old girl he brutally raped and killed, a detail that barely twitches the dial on Crystal's moral compass.
In the next scene Julian brings his choice hooker, Mai (Rhatha Phongam), to dinner, under the pretence that she be introduced as his girlfriend in a feeble attempt to impress his mother. Crystal wastes no time in letting her ill-feelings be known, berating the "cum dumpster" sat beside her before turning her poison tongue on Julian, citing penis envy as the root of his inadequacy as a son and man. Now is not the time for pleasantries. Eye-for-an-eye retribution is the only thing that will sate her anguish, and once again Julian has proven himself to be a disappointment. "If the tables were turned your brother would have found your killer and brought me his head on a fucking platter", she hisses.
As mother-son relationships go, they don't come with more baggage than this one. Yet despite his mother's calloused disposition and emotional vacuity, Julian is unflinchingly obedient; he keeps her cigarettes lit and kisses her cheek when prompted. As if their relationship weren't strange enough, there's also a trace of chemical imbalance between them that occasionally takes a dip into Freudian waters. It's this acute, cancerous bond that propels Julian's Dantean descent into an inferno of vice and aggression.
If Drive was Nicolas Winding Refn's high-sheen (wheel)spin on werewolf mythology, Only God Forgives is his reconditioning of a more canonic monster. It's a mesmerising Oedipal ballet, a lucid fever dream that pulls you in from the opening frame and doesn't let you go. As in Drive the characters exist within a heightened reality — interiors are perpetually bathed in pools of deep red and blue light; beads of disco ball light dance and skip off walls like drunken spirits; prostitutes wait tables at cheap karaoke clubs, or else adorn plush sofas in neon-lit backrooms like dolls arranged neatly on a dresser, waiting to be played with.
All the while Julian moves tigerishly through this claustrophobic underworld; composer Cliff Martinez's delicate cacophony of tribal drums and wind chimes setting a menacing rhythmic pace. When the violence comes (and boy does it ever) it does so in ear-punching thunder claps. The sound of Chang's samurai sword cutting through the thick, putrid air adds another layer to the film's visceral tone.
Whether gliding ominously down long, lavishly decorated corridors or fixed between door frames looking into perfectly symmetrical rooms, Refn's voyeuristic lens gives the film a hypnotic, haunted feel. Refn has drawn similarities between Only God Forgives and Drive, but it shares a more tangible spiritual connection with the Danish writer/director's elliptical 2003 thriller Fear X, in which John Turturro experiences peculiar visions relating to his wife's seemingly random death.
Stylistically it evokes the work of Gaspar Noé — though he's not credited the Irreversible director's presence on set surely rubbed off on Refn. As a footnote it's also intriguing that Only God Forgives is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky. If that's an acknowledgement of further creative emulation, it doesn't detract one iota from what is an extraordinary singular vision from a supremely gifted filmmaker. This is by some way Refn's most complete film. It may even be his masterpiece.