When Nicolas Winding Refn's latest baroque folly burst its boils over an expectant audience at Cannes, one sensed heaves of disappointment issuing from many fans of the same director's Drive. That LA thriller seemed, after a few decades of toil, to have pushed the Danish director towards the front rank. Drive certainly had its peculiar moments. But there was nothing in it to scare off any enthusiast for Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese.
The intimations of betrayal that burned through subsequent reviews of Only God Forgives implied that Refn had just executed a wilful swerve in an entirely unexpected direction. Just look at this thing. Any intricacies of plotting are foresworn for a headlong embrace of portentous butchery. The acting is either anaesthetised or broader than Jupiter. A kind of adolescent madness runs through every frame. Has the success gone to his head?
In fact, Drive is the aberration and Only God Forgives – a tale of revenge and Oedipal unease on the streets of Bangkok – is the film that fits more comfortably into the Refn oeuvre. If the project had come right after Bronson (a character study that Ken Russell would have appreciated) and Valhalla Rising (an undervalued, psychotically glum Viking saga) then it would have raised fewer eyebrows. This is, in fact, the film the director wanted to make before Ryan Gosling talked him into Drive (a rare Refn piece based on someone else's script).
Rarely confused with a whirlwind in full surge, Gosling is here invited to squash any residual tendencies towards flamboyance into a performance that sets new standards in the field of stoniness. He plays Julian, the proprietor of a boxing club that acts as a front for a substantial drug smuggling business. Equilibrium is shattered when his brother Billy murders an underage prostitute and gets beaten to death by the girl’s father.
Lieutenant Chang, the local police officer, permits the revenge attack, but then slices off the father’s arm as punishment for placing his daughter in peril. The officer emerges as the piece’s villain, but, such is the moral murk through which we swim that he could just as easily function as the hero.
The film really surges into full gothic malevolence when Julian's mother arrives with seven layers of retribution on her mind. In a piece of casting so inspired it alone makes the film worth viewing, Kristin Scott Thomas plays Crystal as a combination of Mary Poppins and the Lernaean Hydra.
Her hair straight and blonde, her mouth stretched to a malevolent fissure, KST manages, in one swoop, to repel memories of all those dull French films concerning affairs between lady poets and wine importers. In one glorious moment, while urging Julian to revenge his brother, she responds to his observation that Billy raped and killed a child with a casually malign “Well, I’m sure he had his reasons.” Delicious stuff.
Julian may be a hard man, but he’s no match for that degree of savage loyalty. A slide towards catastrophe begins as the protagonist gets on board the vengeance train.
Scored to Cliff Martinez' evocative beats, featuring nauseatingly rosy photography by Larry Smith (less the red of Michael Powell than the red of untreated chilblains), the film rapidly settles into a horrible hymn to the rougher excesses of the id.
Textual analyses of Only God Forgives will not get you very far. Entirely free of cheap consolations, the film is, ultimately, a dark fantasy set in a place where only the nastiest instincts hold sway.
It's occasionally ridiculous. It occasionally overreaches itself. But its shameless audacity demands our attention. There is too much polite cinema about the place (and too much of it features Kristin Scott Thomas). Forget Drive. This is cask-strength Refn. Savour responsibly.