Catapulted to international recognition from his first home grown project Pusher (1996) and the critical appraisal of Drive (2011), Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives pays tribute to his ongoing fascination with violence marked by an increasingly stylized palette.
Julian (cue Ryan’s slow burning Gosling-Gaze) operates a boxing club at the criminal heart of Bangkok, a front for the family drug smuggling business. When his brother rapes and kills an underage prostitute, the local police force solicit the services of a retired colleague (stoically played by Vithaya Pansringarm), aptly nicknamed ‘The Angel of Vengeance’, due to his unwavering ability to seek out those that upset the moral status quo. Charged by his mother to track this silent vigilante down, Julian glimpses a chance at redemption from his shadowed past.
Despite the aesthetic richness of diffused neon lighting and blue dulcet tones of hollow night clubs, Refn’s formal strength also indicates his weakness; with the exception of Kristen Scott Thomas’ bold performance as a domineering peroxide-laden mother, there is a distinct lack of character and narrative depth. It isn’t as if this is beyond Refn’s capabilities. Take Bronson (2008) for example; theatrical and brutish in approach and content, it still elevates style whilst preserving narrative sensibility – a trait ignorantly brushed aside in Only God Forgives.
Whilst the film does have its moments, they become difficult to focus on when so much of the script is marred with excessive references to psychoanalysis. Unlike Hossein Amini, who gave a balanced, exceptional edge to the development of Drive, Refn’s attempt at screenwriting dismisses balanced pace in favour of Freudian metaphors that swim around so haphazardly we begin to drown in them. Although his direction help frame and establish these symbolic motifs, Refn’s insistence of placing them in clusters throughout the film (alongside equally predictable arcs of violence) counteracts their overall effect.
If sex really is like violence (“It’s all about the build-up” he tells various media outlets, in more of a Texas trickle than a Danish drawl), then Only God Forgives is frustratingly stuck in a teenage cycle of all-out foreplay. For all the visual vitality it boasts, it’s worth remembering; all that glitters is not gold.