With 2011's 'Drive', Nicolas Winding Refn cemented his position as cinema's latest "enfant terrible": an icy cool, stylish auteur, fusing Tarantino's irreverence for genre with a Cronenbergian lust for unsettling, gruesome violence. Aloof and slickly produced, 'Drive' was a shot of adrenaline delivered directly to the heart: unconventional, uncompromising, and seemingly without peer.
When viewed as part of Refn's filmography, however, 'Drive' stands as something of an anomaly: a calculated, lucid genre-picture from a filmmaker who more frequently embraces the abstract and the surreal. His latest film, 'Only God Forgives', has more in common with the fever dream-logic of David Lynch than it does the stylised action tropes of Tarantino - a frightening, hellish descent into a neon-lit underworld, as steeped in dark humour as it is in violence.
Ryan Gosling plays Julian, an American expat running drugs and a boxing ring in downtown Bangkok. When his demented brother Billy (Tom Burke) beats a teenage prostitute to death, the local police chief, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), has Billy killed; old-fashioned justice of the Biblical kind. Urged into action by the arrival of his outrageously controlling mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), Julian searches for vengeance against his brother's killers, pursuing a foe with almost metaphysical resources and a supernatural ability to produce a sword from thin air.
'Only God Forgives', like his nightmarish Vikings-versus-pre-Columbus-Americas saga, 'Valhalla Rising', is Winding Refn at his most hallucinogenic. The film is not interested in exploring a conventional narrative; those looking for ties to the loose ends, clear resolutions, or even a natural progression of logic will go away disappointed. Refn has committed entirely to mood, and that mood is as much a character as any of the actors involved.
The streets of Bangkok are rendered in gaudy neon and time-stuck decors, photographed with exaggerated colours and impossible perceptions of space. The sense of cultural dislocation, of Gosling's Julian being a stranger in a strange land, is palpable, even as the tone shifts through a series of ominous forebodings, tension-filled maneuvers, and sickly repercussions.
Gosling continues his trend of anti-acting, giving a perfectly blank performance that actually, for once, works. Most of the characters in 'Only God Forgives' drift through the film with a sense of inevitability, motivated by the gears of the plot (such as it is) than any real drama. Pansringarm, as the über-cool Chang, seems more in on the joke than anyone, his deadpan lack of surprise at each inexplicable attempt on his life suggesting some hidden secret foreknowledge (perhaps he read the script?). Kristin Scott Thomas, as Julian's repulsive mother, Crystal, is a single burst of energy in an otherwise inert sea of emotion, a toweringly grotesque creation that entertains as much as she violently disgusts.
It's an aesthetic experience, playing with mood and pace, the juxtaposition of violence, the ordinary and the extraordinary, sanity and madness.
'Only God Forgives' is a deconstruction of masculinity and violence, but not a serious one; it's filled with too many sly winks, too great an awareness of its own contrivance, to be purely academic. Rather, it's an aesthetic experience, playing with mood and pace, the juxtaposition of violence, the ordinary and the extraordinary, sanity and madness. Reality is a sliding scale to Julian and the world he inhabits. Refn blurs, again and again, the line between reality and fantasy to the point where we're unable to distinguish a coherent point of view. Whose eyes are we watching through? Whose version of reality? What of this, if any, is real?
Ultimately, the answer is: zero. Winding Refn twists the film back in on itself like a Chinese finger-trap, denying deep analysis just as much as it encourages it. There's a statement somewhere inside 'Only God Forgives', and one gets the feeling the joke (if there is one), is entirely upon the audience. Armed with an open mind and an empty stomach, 'Only God Forgives' is riotous, outrageous, and highly recommended.