'If 'Drive' is like really good cocaine, then this film is like strong acid - the kind where you like, turn into a chair'. These are the words Nicholas Winding Refn used to introduce the screening of his ultra-violent, uncomfortably oedipal and exhausting film 'Only God Forgives' last week. Shrouded in an existential hue, this fetish-riddled film is bound to polarise audiences - not just because the gore is on a whole new level, even for Mr Wrongy McWrongerson Winding Refn, but also because it feels like a creative collision of everything he has done previously. A dark slice of hell, the film heaves itself between utter chaos and terrifying calm, leaving you unsure as to what the hell just happened, but simultaneously totally hooked.
Winding Refn said that when conceiving 'Only God Forgives', he had wanted to depict a man who fights with God. And so we are given Julian - played by a silently smouldering Ryan Gosling, he is a drug smuggler thriving in Bangkok's crooked underworld. He fights with God not because he is an inherently bad man, but because of the tension he feels between what others want him to be, and the pull towards what he feels he really is. A hard criminal he is, but a ruthless killer devoid of emotion and responsibility he is not. Winding Refn chose to set this film in Thailand in order to totally remove it from Western civilisation. A combination of east and west, by day it is colourful and pulsing, 'like a Disney film' he said (interestingly he is partly colour blind), and by night it becomes unmistakably Thai - evoking the sense of being a very long way from home, uncertain and unfamiliar. Add in the constant use of dark nonsensical corridors and cinematography from Larry Smith (Bronson, Eyes Wide Shut), and the result is a deliciously disconcerting 90 minutes of film making genius.
Watching from the shadows is Julian's mother, Crystal (Kirsten Scott-Thomas). Having recently flown in from America to pick up the body of her first-born son, she is dripping with as many colours and trashy jewels as the back streets of Bangkok. Fowl mouthed and aggressively sexual from the word go, she expects the killer of her favourite son Billy (Tom Burke) to have already been dealt with by the time her plane touches down. 'It's complicated', explains Julian - the man who killed Billy was the father of the young girl Billy had just raped and killed. On hearing this, Crystal's moral compass doesn't even flinch - 'I'm sure he had his reasons', she hisses. The strange Oedipal behaviour we see between Crystal and Julian comes to perverse head at this point - but even for the characters it appears uncomfortable and hard to define, meaning they both quickly revert to what they know best - inflicting violence on others.
Kirsten Scott-Thomas is so often known as 'your mum's favourite actress', which initially makes her casting in this part pretty odd; but Winding Refn said that when he met her in Paris to discuss the role, she 'turned on the bitch witch' with impressive ease. Her character is revolting and repugnant in every single way, but it's thanks to this that she manages to steal pretty much every scene she's in. Even during a closing scene where we see a very literal attachment between the mother and son, it's somehow still her you're drawn to.
Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is the cop who 'allows' the distraught father to kill Julian's brother. By doing this, he manipulates a chain reaction of revenge killings, gradually killing off the scum of the Thai underworld in a truly spectacular and sometimes comic fashion. The scene in which he casually browses hair pins and fruit picking implements for the purposes of brutally impaling an unrelenting criminal is particularly brilliant, and allows the film to just about sit in the brutal-but-entertaining category rather than slipping into the total-head-fuck bucket. A monolith with no apparent past and very little present moment context, Chang is living in a fully heightened reality of cause and effect, which underpins the mythological nod the film is making to the Old Testament.
The Oedipal complex seeps into the film's overarching genre too. This is a relentless fight movie - but its point of difference is that it has women at its centre. Clenched fists are a symbol used time and time again here, in the clenched position representing an extension of the male sexuality, said Winding Refn, but when open they symbolise submission. All the male characters here - bar our Angel of Vengeance Chang - are in submission by the end of the film, whether that be to the female characters, to their own conscience - or indeed to God.
Winding Refn is a known master of low budget film making, and has always made it clear that great film making does not and should not lean on enormous budgets. The thumpathon that was 'Bronson' for example cost a measly $1m. 'Drive' cost $14m, which he said during the Q&A was 'like making Star Wars' to him. 'Only God Forgives' was back down to a very humble $2m. Given he and Gosling decided that Ryan would play anti-hero protagonist Julian whilst sharing a slice of apple pie in an LA cafe one night, because Luke Evans had just dropped out three weeks before filming was due to start (he had taken a part in Peter Jackson's second installment of 'The Hobbit'), it's inevitable Winding Refn got R-Gos for a very good price. Another Winding Refn favourite, Cliff Martinez, once again provides an excellent score - Thai flavoured moments are intermingled with some serious 80s synth. Winding Refn made it clear that he leant on Martinez a great deal to complement the script, not just to embellish- 'he was front row and centre' he said, but perhaps the most interesting point here is the director's unashamed use of silence. Similar to the score in 'Drive', it is proactively used as an emotional concept in itself - stopping the viewer from bypassing even one second of awfulness.
You'll spend most of this film trying to get a grip on if something is a lucid dream, a bad trip or a very horrible reality, and you'll be spat out the other end feeling like you're upside down and inside out. 'Only God Forgives' isn't as good a fun as 'Drive', but its sadistic fetishism will have Nicholas Winding Refn fans cringing with perverse joy.
4.5 out of 5
Out in the UK Friday 2 August.
With thanks to Curzon Cinemas for hosting the screening and Q&A.
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