Nicolas Winding Refn only really dipped into the limelight last year with his stylish and über-cool crime movie Drive. Before that, his repertoire was only really known amongst the more savvy and experimental of film-goers, especially given its lack of coverage in the USA. More popular and admired in Europe, Refn's past work is certainly out of leftfield, and you would be forgiven for not enjoying it. I for one have never been a Refn fan before Drive, which reminded me of those blue jean cop movies that played on TV in the nineties, with short dialogue and drawn-out sequences, which are all back in vogue now (plus the soundtrack was tone-perfect). Compared with the other of his films I'd seen - the Pusher trilogy, Valhalla Rising and Bronson - Drive is very much the anomaly in the Refn's filmography, having far wider appeal than his other works. Only God Forgives is not like Drive. It is far more in keeping with the sinister mood and skin-crawling dialogue reminiscent of the pre-Drive Refn films. I read somewhere that "Drive is Refn directing a Ryan Gosling movie, whereas Only God Forgives is Gosling starring in a Nicolas Winding Refn movie". That statement couldn't be more accurate. Only God Forgives is a very weird film indeed. Ryan Gosling plays Julian, an American criminal outcast to the shady underbelly of Bangkok after a traumatic event back home, who now runs a drug-dealing business through the guise of his Muay Tai boxing club. When his older brother Billy, a despicably sordid drug-dealer, beats a young prostitute to death, the local police boss ensures he is killed in retribution bringing Crystal (Kristen Scott-Thomas), Billy and Julian's psychotic mother, to Bangkok to incite a series of revenge killings. It sounds like quite a lot happens, but sadly, it doesn't. The film does't really fit into a traditional three act structure, instead it floats through neon corridors, across silhouetted walls, splashed with jarring spurts of ultra violence, and dialogue so uncomfortable you'd rather watch it alone. To be honest, it's just an ugly piece of cinema, with no redeeming quality to hold onto or embrace. It's as trim as a film can be, with only one or two (or even no) lines of dialogue setting up each scenario, which usually end up in some kind of violent retribution. Unlike Rodriguez, Tarantino or Mann, Refn doesn't give us anyone to like, or empathise with, as the dialogue and acting is too sparse and minimalist to ever invest in anyone.
One of the most baffling concepts of Refn's film is that Chang, a slightly-built fortysomething police lieutenant clad in black, is able to summon a sword from between his shoulders at every point of retribution. It's never quite made clear if he is supernatural or not, but this sword-summoning would suggest he is - something which just doesn't really make sense in this movie. He is believed to be the angel of vengeance, judge, jury and executioner. Even more baffling are his creepy karaoke performances to a room of silent police colleagues, which seem to act as chapter intervals between his acts of retribution. Possibly I'm missing a greater message or symbolic significance, but Chang didn't seem much better than the people he punished; he allowed, or even ordered, the girl's father to beat Billy to death which caused a chain reaction. Had Chang arrested Billy, enduring Thai prison for murder perhaps being a fate far worse than death, he may have concluded the fallout from Billy's disgraceful action, preventing all the subsequent brutal murders which followed. If you consider this, then Chang fits in nicely with the seedy underbelly, no more an angel of death than a psychopathic tit-for-tat policeman, the only thing separating him from this world of violence is his scenic abode (which also feels the overspill of bloodshed).
However you look at it, Only God Forgives is not an enjoyable story, and Gosling's very boring performance as Julian doesn't ooze the same cool as his previous outing in Refn's LA pulp tale, making for a dull narrative and character. Chang on the other hand at least presents some kind of enigma to evoke interest, but this is short-lived as the depravity delves lower. Yes, there is some stylish imagery and the cinematography is always accomplished in Refn's movies, and the film's highlight - the boxing scene between Julian and Chang - warrants the film an extra mark with it's great visual aesthetic, but in all, it's hard to see past the filth and muck to see any real value in this movie. [2/5]