Only God Forgives is an intricately constructed portrait of Hell. As beautiful as it is harrowing, it is the antithesis of Drive in that the vengeance it portrays is neither clearly justified nor comprehensively executed. And because of this it may be harder for fans of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s last film to accept it as the minor masterpiece that it is.
Ryan Gosling throws more punches than lines of dialogue as American gangster Julian, dislocated from his native land and stranded in the neon-saturated purgatory of Bangkok with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). The pair form part of a western crime syndicate, running boxing matches and trafficking drugs to make ends meet in an alien land. Billy’s murder, authorised by local police lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), sets Julian on a path of hesitant revenge. This mute Hamlet is joined by his mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) who spurs him towards his grisly goal, enlisting third party help when he proves to be stifled by something other than his conscience.
Only God Forgives choreographs a deliberately confusing dance with the moral dilemmas which are usually brushed aside in other ultraviolent revenge films. Although Julian is a central figure, it's the karaoke-loving Chang who holds attention throughout, his unflappable righteousness and Old Testament approach to justice forcing the audience to think carefully about with whom they should place their allegiance, before concluding that the real answer is no one.
However you feel about the film’s plot and characters, the technical execution is both a triumph and an indulgence on the part of a director who composes shots with such care that every frame is as richly detailed as a photograph. Bangkok becomes a red-tinted tinderbox of wordless aggression, with unnatural stillness and static expressions defining each actor's performance. Julian’s mother has the most to say, and against an ambient backdrop of electric hums and driving synths, her abrasive, entitled prattling is amplified.
Only God Forgives hits you like a wall of white noise, and it’s a disorienting experience, but one which invites scrutiny and encourages the audiences to be sceptical of the assumptions that they’ve been trained to make by a thousand revenge thrillers. Watch it.