ONLY GOD FORGIVES
First things first - this is not Drive 2. Yes, it comes from the same director and lead actor, boasts an electronic eighties-style electro score from former Red Hot Chili Pepper Cliff Martinez and is set largely at night but there the similarities end. With its long takes, slow pacing and general feeling of dread it more closely resembles Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut with violence instead of sex. Whereas Drive always had an element of hope provided by Carey Mulligan's character, Only God Forgives follows a group of people for whom any hope of redemption evaporated a long time ago.
Film centres around Julian (Ryan Gosling), an American living in Bangkok who runs a kickboxing club and deals drugs on the side with his detestable brother Billy (Tom Burke). When Billy murders a 14 year old prostitute the police turn him over to the girl's father with predictable results. Enter Crystal (Kristin Scott-Thomas), the Mob boss-like mother of the two boys who demands Julian exact revenge. As Julian begins to pursue those responsible for his brother's death he finds his path crossing with the mysterious Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a policeman with almost supernatural abilities.
The characters are fascinating. Julian is beset by hallucinations of his arms being cut off and is clearly haunted by a past not fully revealed until the end of the film. Chang on the other hand is a different beast altogether, gliding around the film like a ghost, dispensing his own version of justice and then chilling afterwards in a karaoke bar. There are continual hints that he may have special powers - on more than one occasion he pulls a samurai sword from nowhere and in one scene is actually slightly see-through. He's a brilliant creation and deserves his own film. Both performances and technicality are strong - Gosling adds another near-silent troubled brooder to his repertoire but there are few who do so much with just a look. His scenes with Scott-Thomas are incredibly tense as she alternatively seduces and humiliates him. After decades of playing posh Englishwomen (or Frenchwomen these days) KST relishes doing a Lady Macbeth type figure. I won't spoil it here but her reaction upon finding out why her son was killed is priceless and brought gasps from the audience.
The true revelation though is Pansringarm, who had small parts in The Hangover 2 and, er, The Prince and Me 4 (no idea.). He makes effortless work of Chang's odd mixture of spirituality and brutality, and will undoubtedly skyrocket after this. Director Refn and cinematographer Larry Smith make fantastic use of both space and colour, evoking Kubrick not only in the aforementioned Eyes Wide Shut (which Smith also worked on) but with its bright red corridors, tracking shots and ambient music calls to mind The Shining on more than one occasion. Every shot is fantastically composed - special mention to the karaoke scenes where an impassive Chang sings to his police colleagues - sat bolt upright as if they were at debriefing. Refn never allows his audience to truly settle. It's certainly not for everyone though.
The first screening at Cannes was notoriously divisive - half the audience on their feet applauding, half heading for the exits booing. This kind of slow, serious filmmaking requires total immersion from the audience which can backfire. The serious tone (if anyone cracked a smile in the entire film I missed it), lack of dialogue and multiple shots of Gosling staring occasionally run the risk of having the reverse effect - there were some stifled giggles at times in the screening I attended. Also the much talked about violence which had people heading for the exit at Cannes is pretty brutal, although more infrequent than you may have heard. If you're squeamish, close your eyes when the chopsticks come out. However if you do allow yourself to relax into the films world it's a rewarding experience - a simultaneously beautiful and terrifying neon dream-world about guilt and the notion of justice.
It may be too slow for some and too intense for others but give it some patience and enjoy a true original from one of the most interesting directors working today. One thing's for sure - love it or hate it, you will want to talk about it afterwards. 4/5