After all the mainstream attention and the heaps of awards bestowed upon Nicolas Winding Refn’s sleek modern crime noir “Drive” back in 2011, one might have been forgiven for expecting the Danish director’s follow-up movie would take the easy option and simply repeat the formula which lead to the relatively modest, yet still unexpected, box office success of that previous film. Certainly the return of Ray Gosling in the lead here might help cement such inappropriate thoughts when going into a viewing of this, as does the ostensibly genre related nature of the subject matter. But in fact, whilst the striking neon dazzle and Kaleidoscopic pop of the grading in the colour palette used with Larry Smith’s digital photography provides some degree of carry-over with the visual aesthetic of “Drive” here, “Only God Forgives” most resembles in form the mythological, fable-like allegorical structure at the heart of Refn’s oblique and mysterious “Valhalla Rising” from 2009 -- but here given some dark, velvety, ritualistic Freudian textures all of its own. Written by Refn himself, the screenplay for this wilfully dreamlike trawl through the sweaty Thai boxing clubs, crowded neon-doused backstreets, candy coloured high-end sex clubs and kitschy Karaoke bars of downtown Bangkok, had originally been planned to be the basis of the director’s next project after work wrapped on “Valhalla Rising”, until Gosling chose Refn to direct him in “Drive” instead: an adaptation of James Sallis’ lyrical crime thriller and an excellent decision as it turned out, for Refn’s stylised, minimalist narrative technique proved to be perfectly suited to capturing the tersely layered existential musings so integral to the novel. All three films are indeed connected thematically by the totemic presence at the centre of each of them of silent protagonists who dispense their idiosyncratically violent forms of justice unsparingly -- a fact which bundles the three films into a kind of a trilogy by default, as they ostensibly represent three different cinematic outlets for the same otherworldly character, cast with a different face each time.
On the surface, any bare bones plot synopsis for “Only God Forgives” also appears to categorise the film as an obvious spiritual successor to its crime noir predecessor: two American-born brothers run a drug smuggling operation from a boxing club they use as a front for their criminal activities in Bangkok. When the elder brother Billy (Tom Burke) is killed by the grief-stricken father of the sixteen-year-old prostitute he raped and murdered while on a drug and alcohol fuelled bender in a backstreet brothel, the fearsome matriarch of the syndicate, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) -- who has taken control of the business with the death of the boys’ father -- flies in to claim the body of her favourite son and to take it back to the states, at the same time as overseeing an operation to find and reap vengeance upon all those responsible for his death -- a job she assigns to her reluctant remaining son, Julian (Ray Gosling): an insular, haunted man already torn between family loyalties, supressed feelings of guilt for a crime committed in the past and a crippling sexual torment rooted in the suggestion of a relationship with his mother that rivals the home life of Norman Bates for its un-healthiness; with all the crisis in masculinity (hidden behind extreme mental isolation) this in turn has evoked.
In fact, rather than a summation of the plot, the above description provides the only smidgen of narrative you can expect to get from this film: here characters are sketched in the most cursory terms imaginable, dialogue is minimal throughout, plot development negligible and explanations are left for the viewer to ponder and to surmise for his or her-self. This is an unapologetically abstract movie, and has more in common with the surrealist anti-logic of David Lynch’s later work than the action orientated cinema of Tony Scott or the wordy revenge narratives of Quentin Tarantino, despite the relative straightforwardness of the basic storyline. This tension between narrative simplicity and the film's symbolic, abstract proclivities ensure that it has been, and is liable to continue to be, divisive in the kinds of audience responses it elicits. One’s first clue that former assumptions about what to expect here might need to be revised somewhat, occurs in the very opening moments with a title sequence for which even the cast and crew credits are made to appear alien and culturally other. They, along with the title of the film, are presented in a cryptic-looking Siamese script, which is expressed via an orthography characterised by intricate, finally detailed clusters of relational markers that have the effect of making the written Thai language look to the unaccustomed eye more like a form of decorative art than something that could ever be spoken aloud. The blood red image of an executioner’s blade then fills the screen, Cliff Martine’s terrifying title cue (with its ominous single note horn blast) accompanied by waves of animated blood blotches emerging out of the black in spirals that echo the dizzying, over-fussy wave patterns on the wallpaper in Ryan Gosling’s blood red boudoir, and underscoring the heightened reality in which much of the film is to take place.
Gosling’s pared down performance in this movie has been the subject of much pondering and head-scratching in some quarters: the lead in “Drive” was called in very much at the last minute to replace Luke Evans in the central role after the Welsh actor’s commitments on “The Hobbit” caused a scheduling clash; but this eleventh hour re-casting seems unlikely -- as some have suggested -- to be the reason for Gosling’s blank-faced, mute performance in the film: for this is a non-verbal character, conceived as emotionally vacant and repressed, turned inexorably in upon himself from the start, and barely residing in the real world as anything other than a faint ghostly trace trapped between the cracks of Bangkok’s intoxicating psychedelic neon cityscape, except when engaged in violent acts such as glassing and beating up giggling punters in a sex booth for disturbing his etiolated, candy-pink & purple reveries (scored to a soothing wash of melancholic ambient synths from Gregory Tripi, collaborating here with Cliff Martine), which are where equally inscrutable sex worker Mai (Thai pop singer Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) also features as a statuesque beacon of possible -- but somehow always elusive -- emotional and sexual fulfilment in a repressed soul: she’s a silent beautify whose inherent grace is undermined by Julian’s frustrated attempts to dress her up and mould her into a suitable partner to be presented, doll-like, back to mother … a Bernard Herman-esque romantic orchestral leitmotif that's associated with both Mai and Crystal at various points in the film underlining the reference to “Vertigo” here.
Gosling plays this tortured character as a little boy lost, somnambulating through an incomprehensible culture full of codes and rituals he can barely register, with an air of impotent calmness surrounding him that is crystallised in his perpetually absent, doe-eyed gaze. The labyrinthine complex of semi-darkened corridors behind the scenes of the Thai boxing club Julian runs as a front for much seedier underworld activities become symbolic of the ego and super-ego battles which define the character’s crippled unconscious -- just as the boxing arena out front represents the violent masculine surface of the id. They’re a purgatorial warren of confining track-ways, floodlit in neon red, and constituting a hemmed in, womb-like netherworld from which Julian is unable mentally to escape, and from which we learn -- in an oblique phantasmagorical fashion -- the preordaining depths of the Oedipal torments haunting him, even as he attempts to connect with Mai through weirdly formalised fetish acts of scopophiia. This dreamlike location becomes a precise physical and geographical embodiment of the separation anxiety and Freudian castration complexes symbolising the crisis of masculinity at the heart of the character’s perverse relationship with his mother: the monstrous Crystal is portrayed as a manipulative, ruthless virago … a glammed up black widow (Kristin Scott Thomas has a blast playing this as ‘Lady Macbeth meets a faded Donatella Versace’) who consumes her own young, and is the principle lynchpin in Julian’s mental enslavement.
Into this lurid dreamwork space materialises the movie’s equivalent of Mads Mikkelsen’s One-Eye in “Valhalla Rising”: Vithaya Pansringarm’s Lt. Chang is barely more verbal or demonstrative than Julian, yet seems to represent some sort of an Avenging Angel, with seer-like powers of intuition and precognition; followed throughout the dispensing of his Old Testament style justice on Bangkok’s wrongdoers, he is first seen emerging from the darkened doorframe at the end of one of the tunnel-like corridors behind the boxing club, as though he has been conjured up in a trance by Julian’s own haunted headspace -- birthed by the character’s psychic need to find redemption in a form of punishment that becomes also a metaphor for Julian’s sense of emasculated psychic enslavement. But Chang has his own reality also – that located in the otherness and the harsh mesh of tradition and modernity enshrined by a culture quite separate from the decadent western neurosis that defines Julian’s psyche. Expressed in balletic Kendo moves, Chang’s punishments are absolute, unyielding and harsh: dismemberment, mutilation and maiming, delivered with a blade normally used in Thai public executions (and often represented explicitly on screen in a manner that must have had the usual audience for a Kristen Scott Thomas film running for the exits during cinema screenings), are his stock and trade. Chang’s uncompromising world is composed very much of opposites, though: delivering without demonstrable feeling the inescapable fate of all those whose weak moral character might lead them to turn a blind eye to vice, he still tenderly removes his shoes after work each day before entering the simple, green-painted wood-shack dwelling that is his home -- located in a bucolic enclave on the edge of Bangkok’s narrow, sweat-drenched, neon-saturated streets where he lives with his little daughter and a young home help. We also get occasional peaks into this character’s bizarre mental landscape, too; and it appears to be one in which this otherwise taciturn deliverer of total street justice (and some pulverising Muay kick-boxing slam dunks) imagines himself singing tender heartfelt Thai pop ballades to his mannequin-still police colleagues, while stood on a fairy light-strewn karaoke stage!
The second half of the film adheres to the structure of a classic western, with the equivalent of a massive saloon shoot-out and a violent climactic face-off at the end. Crystal’s attempts to avenge the death of her eldest son result in Chang and Julian being fated to meet for real -- outside of their respective dream reveries -- when the Lieutenant’s ‘investigations’ result inevitably in Kristin Scott Thomas’s indiscreet crime matriarch’s name coming up after Chang is led to one of her henchmen relaxing in a tacky Thai Champaign bar, and a spot of grotesque torture is on the cards in order to obtain the required information about who’s been authorising the series of revenge attacks on those involved in the street justice which led to Billy's death. But this familiar narrative template is distorted and undermined by the film’s concentration on the psychic landscape underpinning the relationship between its four central characters: Refn combines the cold formal perfection of Kubrick (every scene meticulously composed and filmed in a series of graceful tracking shots, roving down endless successions of dreamily lighted corridors or crowded Bangkok side-streets) and the visually baroque, candy coated neon excess of Dario Argento at his most abandoned, circa “Suspiria” -- while scenes set in Crystal’s luxury hotel suite are shot in the relatively cool minimalist tones of “Tenebrea”.
The director shot the film chronologically in real backstreet Thai brothels, ornately themed restaurants, lurid sex clubs and kitschy entertainment night spots -- barely changing the locations at all, but instead organising the film’s contents around what was already there. The production design apparently consisted not so much in adding to or toning down the often floridly excessive décor of the latter venues, but instead merely heightening the visual impression such locations make on the senses -- dousing almost every sequence in an riot of psychedelic colour, sometimes splashed indiscriminately across the screen in true Argento aping style, other times artfully arranged with the painterly grace of Mario Bava, but in all cases designed to produce a cinematic delirium like no other. The name of the person most readily brought to mind, though, by the allegorical, abstract nature of this acid-soaked, visually ravishing, intoxicating psychic journey into the unconscious, is also the one to whom the film, like “Drive before it, is dedicated -- namely Nicolas Winding Refn’s friend and, it seems, spiritual mentor, the Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky. It’s hard not to see the film’s obsession with images of amputation and the re-occurring motif of flexed hands and tensed arms as a reference to Jodorowsky’s “Santa Sangre”, as well as a potent symbol for the character of Julian’s sense of mental and physical emasculation.
“Only God Forgives” arrives on DVD and Blu-ray from Lionsgate looking as excellent as you’d expect, the colours in Larry Smith’s striking neon-bright digital photography popping from the screen throughout, ensuring the movie’s sense of heightened reality is successfully carried over to the small screen. Cliff Martinez’s diverse and hypnotic score is fabulous and gets an equally impressive work out with the audio track. Extras are light, but the moderated commentary featuring writer and director Nicolas Winding Refn is unexpectedly revealing about the ideas and themes the director was trying to get across in this instant modern masterpiece. There’s also a short collection of on location and behind-the-scenes clips which show Nicolas Winding Refn setting up shots, selecting props and discussing scenes with star Ryan Gosling. Trailers and a collection of fan art for alternative poster designs are also included. “Only God Forgives” is the film of the year for me -- and it looks splendid in its home viewing incarnation. Essential viewing.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!