Only God Forgives, first look: brutal, terrifying, fabulous

Only God Forgives is not as accessible as Drive, but is a step above

Only God Forgives
    
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Ryan Gosling Kristin Scott Thomas Yayaying Rhatha Phongam
Running Time: 1 hr 30 mins

It seems only right and proper that the most talked about film in the run-up to this year’s Festival de Cannes would, in turn, become the most contentious. Following on from 2011’s Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn’s second collaboration with actor Ryan Gosling promised a blaze of heat and fury. The colour scheme – a furnace of bloody reds, evil blacks and gaudy Bangkok streetlight – never lets us down. The tone is sky high but consistent as it tracks between Wicked Witch of the West and full-blown Freudian nightmare, replete with mutilations, eye-bothering, dragon imagery and pointedly (that is the right word) phallic swordplay.

On the surface, Only God Forgives looks like a straightforward Muay Thai vengeance cycle. As the film opens, Gosling’s oddly hapless Julian stands back as his brother, a relentlessly nasty piece of work, prowls the Thai streets in search of a 14-year-old girl. His quest ends with the death of a teenage prostitute and his own grisly demise: the pair might well have drowned in bodily fluids by the time Refn’s bloodwork team have been and gone.

Enter Kristin Scott Thomas’s terrifying mommy dearest, a drug-dealing moll with a queasy, mythological grip on her son’s loyalty and affections. Her attitude to the death of her first-born is simple: so what if he raped and killed a 15-year-old, she purrs, “I’m sure he had his reasons”.

It falls to Julian to take arms against Vithaya Pansringham’s ill-defined police officer, a character billed as Chang, the Angel of Vengeance in the credits. It’s an apt title. There’s something supernatural about Chang, who seems to possess the capacity to disappear, to read minds and to haunt dreams.


Then again, there's something decidedly supernatural about this entire enterprise. It does not take long for the viewer to realise that Refn's repeated allusions to Kubrickian dimensions and to The Shining in particular are pointing towards a creepy in-uterine context. If Chang – like the antiheroes of late John Ford pictures – is the brute force required to keep lesser brute force in check, Scott Thomas is the fierce maternal, a familial bond that tips into possessive, incestuous hysterics.

“It is impossible for you to enter,” sings Chang in one of the film’s compelling, strange karaoke interludes. It is equally impossible to escape Refn’s crazy, compelling womb space.

Don’t believe the haters. Only God Forgives may not be as accessible as Drive but it’s fabulous in every sense of the word.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic