REVIEW: ONLY GOD FORGIVES (Nicholas Winding Refn – 2013)

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If you were in the presence of a murderous, amoral, psychopath one imagines that you’d sense a disturbance silently screaming to your most basic reptilian impulses: ‘take flight’ or ‘stand and fight.’ Writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn incarnates a demon into flesh of Vithaya Pansringarm’s Chang and puts him on a collision course with Ryan Gosling’s Julian.

Shady fight promoter Billy (Tom Burke) goes on a murderous sexual rampage in a brothel. Police general Chang (Pansringarm) allows the father of the victim the privilege of beating the living crap out of him; and in a final gesture of swift justice, he swipes a sword instead of a gavel and executes him. Billy’s brother Julian (Gosling) unaware of who was behind the murder is tasked by his crazy mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to bring her the head of the man responsible.

Only God Forgives relishes in the Bangkok underworld where a Chang (Pansringarm) — a blood thirsty, master warrior operating a fiefdom — could exist. While modern western settings, like L.A and New York have evolved to past their inherent corruption, third world landscapes crippled by instability allow for you to suspend your disbelief. It’s the wild east and the western personalities infiltrating the criminal underbelly are categorically devoid of morality. Traditional pastimes of Muay Thai and karaoke are polluted by their presence.

Once again Gosling settles in for a searingly intense performance. Contending with not only alienation from his sociopathic, sultry and acid tongued mother (Scott Thomas) but the poisonous energy and stain of fighting a crusade for his psychopathic and sexually atrocious brother. There’s a palpable oedipal complex at warps his primal sexual desires. When he’s in the presence of prostitute Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) he projects fantasies of her dragging him toward her and yet in his real life women and intimacy feel hostile, like a ‘vagina dentata’ concealed beneath her skimpy outfits.

Scott Thomas is unrecognisable as the perverse Crystal. She exudes this implicit insestuous aura that refuses to accept that the spawn that slithered out of her aren’t tainted. While Refn’s script is relatively spartan, Scott Thomas’ taunts and filthy insults leaps out at you. It’s an unforgettable and unrecognisable role from the seasoned female actor.

Pansringarm stalks through the entire film with an ominous, near deathly gate. It’s with an unsettling calm that deals ‘justice’ and a surgeon like proficiency that he dismantles his prey. Like a tsunami his path of destruction is watched with awe by his minions. And whilst karaoke brings him back to a meditative centre there’s a pageantry and implied servitude cast from every (slightly) off key note.

Only God Forgives stays with you like a traumatic memory but the sickening violence appears composed as haunting flashes of sublime beauty; reverberating long after you’ve finished viewing.

and a half

Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Tom Burke

Only God Forgives was released on 18 July 2013.

Only God Forgives is distributed by Icon Films.