Overview: After his psychotic brother is killed, Julian is forced by his mother to hunt down the man responsible only to suffer the wrath of a cop who loves karaoke. It’s weirder than it sounds. Radius-TWC 2013; Rated R; 90 minutes.
To Drive, Or Not To Drive: This is not a sequel to Drive. This is not a spiritual successor to Drive. Many (including me) went to see Only God Forgives under the false pretense that this would be another euphoric experience with what is essentially a minimalist, twisted, superhero origin story. Nicholas Winding Refn isn’t a director who plays it safe when following up a previous film’s success. (Drive made 76 million against a modest 15 million budget.) Refn dives straight into a movie that shares little with his previous work. If Drive is a euphoric neo-noir, Only God Forgives is a nightmarish revenge thriller from which there is no escape.
Hell’s Trio: On the surface, Ryan Gosling’s Julian begs comparison to Driver from Drive. Both are men of few words. That’s where their similarities end. Driver fights against the current and is a character in constant motion, growing from the experiences within his movie. Julian is a servant to his environment with a mother who gets too close for comfort. He’s haunted by his mother’s persuasion (it’s an obvious Oedipal complex) and the acts that her persuasion has lead him to perform. When Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) asks why he hasn’t killed the man responsible for his brother’s death, there is hesitance. Julian knows his brother was a monster, but there is mention of a cop laying vengeance upon the criminal underworld by dismemberment.
The cop, Chang, coldly calculated by Vithaya Pansringarm, appears to Julian through visions in a dark hallway. These may be sinister visions to us, but Chang is not the villain of the piece. He’s a manifestation of God laying down Old Testament justice. Chang even has a sword that appears out of thin air for ample amputation. He doesn’t speak much in the film unless he has something important to say. There is a direct conflict between Chang and Julian, but only at the behest of Crystal.
Crystal keeps Julian subdued both psychologically and physically. It’s heavily implied that Julian cannot perform with a prostitute whom he favors watching as she pleasures herself in front of him. Any emotional connection between the two is also shut down by Crystal as she compares Julian’s penis to his brother’s. And you thought your Thanksgivings were awkward.
The Language of Neon Hell: Great directors have their own language. Refn lets his visuals tell the story through symbolism and character action. Moments between characters sit longer so they can be gestated in an organic manner. There are no clear heroes and villains here and certainly no “three act structure” to follow, just people trapped in an abstract nightmare.
Thanks to a terrifyingly good soundtrack by Cliff Martinez along with Larry Smith’s fetishistic cinematography, the atmosphere is tense and palpable. Bright neon signs flood the murky streets of Bangkok–a neon hell Refn soaks in for everything it’s worth.
Final Thoughts: This movie is not accessible to a mainstream audience. It might not even be accessible for people who enjoyed Refn’s previous film. But if you’re willing to travel down Refn’s neon path, you’ll be in for a treat.