Only God Forgives is not an easy film to watch; few films have left my head swirling in as much confusion and ambivalence. I have seen it twice because after the first viewing I wasn't sure whether it is one of the best films of 2013 or a piece of 'pretentious macho nonsense' and 'preposterous designer revenge pulp'. To be able to penetrate as deeply as it does, as divisively as it does, is itself an achievement, one that director Nicolas Winding Refn knows and embraces.
It begins with a deus ex machina, the death of Billy (Tom Burke), older brother of Julian (Ryan Gosling). They own a Muay Thai fight club that doubles as a place to sell drugs. During the five minutes we see Billy, he whacks a pimp with a bottle on the head, smacks around women and kills a 16 year old prostitute. He's got problems.
Billy's death is precipitated by the involvement of a mysterious Thai policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the judge, jury and executioner of Bangkok. Chang is more than just a man; he operates, just as the film does, on spiritual, fantastical and real worlds. A God in his realm, he metes out his brand of justice by chopping off limbs and preaching his gospel by singing Korean pop songs in empty nightclubs.
The aforementioned deus ex machina pushes Julian on that well-trodden path of the gangster: revenge. He proceeds with blank indifference on his mission, perhaps he's secretly relieved. But Julian remains tormented by his violent past and is stuck in a psychological inertia. His inability to take care of business brings Julian's psycho mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) into the mix. She's aggressive, foulmouthed, unapologetic and fierce, and Thomas approaches her character with a wicked relish. Crystal and Julian have a passive-aggressive relationship; she alternates between demeaning him first and then asking for his help; Julian remains stoic, always ready to light one of his mother's cigarettes when she needs it.
While Drive was the work of a mechanic showcasing a perfectly engineered machine, Only God Forgives is the work of a master artist unafraid to experiment, even if it means alienating his audience. Here is a Renaissance painting for the 21st century, not just in how beautiful it looks, but in how Refn expects us to treat it. The dialogue is kept to a minimum, the silence speaks louder than words, and the phantasmagoric images force us to figure out what's going on. Using the dream mechanics of Inception, Refn designs this nightmare and we fill it in with our collective consciousness.
This filmmaking style - hypnotic, trance-like, meandering - is diametrically opposite to everything we watch today. While most viewers were bored to death by the repeated takes of Gosling staring out into space blankly, I found myself mesmerized. An ordinary film would have choked us with blatant exposition through a voiceover; here there is space to breathe and ponder. For every sequence of artistic impressionism, Refn caters to our baser instincts with extreme violence; it acts as a counterpoint to all that staring. This arrangement is almost like that of a symphony, and the film is like listening to Beethoven in a world saturated with pop music, AutoTune and Justin Bieber.
This is a gorgeous looking film (did I say that already?) drenched in red and blue neon, floating through the grimy streets of crime-ridden Bangkok, with characters that speak with their bodies more than their words, set to the tune of Cliff Martinez's pulsating electronic score. While watching it, I felt as if Kubrick had decided to make a religious parable (tentatively titled The Shining) in Bangkok. My instincts were right: cinematographer Larry Smith was a longtime Kubrick collaborator. Maybe, like many of Kubrick's films, hindsight will give Only God Forgives the acclaim it deserves. Not that Refn cares.