Director Nicolas Winding Refn has always been one to sidestep success; despite his most accepted films hardly fitting commercial criteria, after the runaway success of Drive he's taken the gained momentum and pushed it over a cliff side once again. Whether that being over into an unbridled artistic nirvana, or experimental suicide will depend entirely on the person watching, their cinematic palette, and their patience with Refn's artistry. No film seemed to divide opinion at this year's Cannes Film Festival quite like Only God Forgives, evoking passionate responses from either side of the fence. What more could you ask for in a film? Well...
The film tells the story of brothers Billy and Julian who reside in Bangkok and use a boxing club as a front for their drug running operation. When the satanic Billy brutally murders a prostitute and is then himself 'murdered' by a Thai police chief, the boys' mother comes into the mix to order weaker brother, Jules (Ryan Gosling), to avenge his fallen sibling.
Focussing on atmosphere and offering little by way of narrative, Refn's latest falls next to his other mood pieces Fear X and Valhalla Rising while marking the most violent of the three. The characters operate as archetypal figures in a sad and desperate tale of grotesque retribution; reportedly Refn directed Vithaya Pansringarm (the Thai police chief pitted against the avenging Jules) by whispering "you are God" into his ear between takes. If this is indeed the case then he must have whispered "Bitch" into the ear of a scenery chewing Kristin Scott Thomas, the Tyrannical Oedipus Rex of the piece, whose motherly presence has son Jules descend into a state of insecure delusion.
Many critics have had their reservations about the recent work of Ryan Gosling, who after the earlier more intricate work of Half Nelson and Lars and the Real Girl has fallen into the cult trappings of being idolised by his director's camera as of late. Though there is some truth to this and Refn himself may have started it, the casting of Gosling here is an inspired piece that challenges the notions of his screen persona. Jules is weak, insecure, cowardly at times, and desperately jealous. He can barely talk to women and mistreats them when he tries. His voice breaks in one scene as he screams at a girl who gives him the cold shoulder. Accusations that the star and/or his director are recycling aspects of their last outing or sorely misjudged here.
Other accusations, however, fall on Refn's continued and intensified approach to visual storytelling; The great Dane has long since entered the realm of 'pure' cinema in which the visuals and soundtrack do the talking, as it were. His astute visual sense has certainly developed over time and the focus on mood has shifted to the forefront, Only God Forgives is full of vivd images that evoke the flustered sweat-drenched flurry of a fever dream. Cliff Martinez's pulsating score is also an assault on the senses and forms a perfect partnership with the film's demonic exploitation.
Despite some definite advancement in Refn's artistry, I still remain bafflingly unconvinced by a director who clearly harbours serious talent. He arguably works better with other people's contributions to scripts (Bronson, Drive) and his earlier, grittier work of his Pusher trilogy had a certain urgency that is sorely lacking here. His films of late offer a nihilistic nightmarish worldview of violence and depravity. Sure, Only God Forgives grabs you by the collar and shakes you senseless, contains exceptional framing/cinematography, but like most bad dreams they end up easily repressed and never arise in conversation around the dinner table.
Perhaps I still need to wait for Nicolas Winding Refn to truly come into his own, or then again, maybe he just doesn't make films for me.