Watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s lurid, ultra-violent and frequently preposterous Bangkok-set revenge thriller, you can’t quite believe that he once directed an episode of Miss Marple for British television. Only God Forgives is stylised, Grand Guignol filmmaking, as far removed from the world of Agatha Christie as you can imagine.
Visually, this is stunning fare. Almost every frame shot by cinematographer (and former Stanley Kubrick collaborator) Larry Smith could be taken out of the film and used on its own as an illustration in a coffee table book. As in his previous feature Drive, Refn is working with Ryan Gosling. The brilliant American actor again gives a moody, minimalist performance in the Steve McQueen vein. He is given barely any dialogue but registers as strongly as ever. The problem is a very clunky plot that would barely pass muster in the lowest grade B movie and some tin-eared sub-Tarantino dialogue.
Gosling plays Julian, an American hiding away in Thailand for reasons never made quite clear. He runs a Thai boxing club while smuggling drugs. His brother Billy (Tom Burke) murders a 16-year old prostitute, thereby setting off multiple revenge killings. Billy himself is quickly murdered. Julian is caught in the middle as the tic for tac bloodletting gets under way. When his mother Crystal (Kristin Scott-Thomas) turns up to collect Billy’s body, the storytelling veers off into the realm of the absurd. Crystal is not Scott-Thomas in the English rose mode we remember from The English Patient. She’s a trash-talking, blonde-haired Ma Baker type. It’s an enjoyably hammy turn from an actress generally known for her deeply layered character performances
Julian’s main antagonist is an impassive but psychotic cop called Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who carries a sword on his back and is ready to lop off gangsters’ hands or decapitate and eviscerate them at the drop of a hat. In one gruesome scene, he uses hair pins to pin an English gangsters arms to his chair and then proceeds to carve him up in a way that makes the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs look lily-livered by comparison.
Refn utterly blurs the lines between heroes and villains. He does little to explain any of his characters’ motivations. As in old Jean-Pierre Melville films, the gangsters and cops alike behave as if they are taking part in some bloody, pre-ordianed ritual they can do nothing to change.
At times, there are echoes of spaghetti westerns. Gosling is every bit as impassive as Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s films. Night-time Thailand with its designer hotels and karaoke parlours is shot in stunning style. For all the violence, the pacing is slow.
A few years ago, Refn made a very strange, bloody and beautiful film about Norse marauders called Valhalla Rising. In some ways, Only God Forgives is a companion piece. Even when he is making a contemporary Thai-set thriller, Refn can’t seem to exorcise his own inner Viking.