CITY OF DEMONS
Without a shadow of a doubt Only God Forgives is one of the most unsettling, relentlessly oppressive and utterly compelling films of the 21st century. It is not a typical Nicolas Winding-Refn picture, nor is it a typical Ryan Gosling flick, and using 2011’s Drive as our primary piece of empirical evidence, neither is it what you would expect from the fruitful auteur/actor partnership. Yes, stylistically there is clear overlap to be seen; a grimy Bangkok underbelly acts as the viewer’s neon-infused wilderness as opposed to the sleek skyscraper sprouting ground of a Los Angeles in limbo between dystopian future and ol’ fashioned gangster’s paradise. Ultra-violence is also back, and back with a head crushing, limb severing vengeance that is unparalleled in releases that can be considered ‘mainstream’ today – and ultimately that’s what Only God Forgives is, a decidedly underground piece of mainstream cinema.
Head to toe Drive has become a substantial representative of film within the canon of contemporary popular-culture, much in part to Gosling’s formidable role as The Driver; from the toothpick to the gold scorpion bomber jacket, its imagery resonates with audiences, including mass audiences, to the point at which it can now be considered iconic. It was a flashy high-octane hybrid of exploitation, art-house, and action that somehow revitalised your cinematic experience by pelting you with 80’s dream pop and hardcore shotgun violence – Only God Forgives is an entirely different beast of a movie.
First and foremost, it isn’t enjoyable or easy to watch. Storytelling wise it is far from linear, often slipping in and out of Apocalypse Now-esque scenes of dusk-lit surrealism which can easily confuse the narrative. Visually, despite being a darkly beautiful film to look at, the persistence of its aesthetic gloom only reinforces the oppressive tone in the same way that concrete reinforces WW2 bunkers. Tonally, the subject matter is also pitch-black, tackling paedophilia, prostitution, sadomasochism, and dugs – all elements which make it extremely difficult to root for any of the characters onscreen. As with Drive, Gosling once again takes centre stage and despite Refn’s success in again framing the talented actor as a stone cold badass – especially when Gosling’s face begins to resemble hamburger meat – the silent but deadly shtick that the director has imbued and muted gosling with has reached the end of its shelf-life. Luckily supporting characters have more to say, none more so than Kristin Scott Thomas’ extremely twisted and overtly sexualised matriarch Crystal; a revelatory role for the English actress who provides some of the most skin crawling moments of the movie.
Ultimately though, despite the list of reasons why you shouldn’t enjoy Only God Forgives, you most likely won’t be able to look away. It feels like the film that Kubrick never had chance to make, full of violence, splendour, and sneer – but unfortunately lacking the playful deviant undercurrent of films such as A Clockwork Orange (1971). The cinematography and camerawork from Larry Smith is incredible, every shot a precise and stunning picture, whilst Cliff Martinez’ ecclesial sci-fi synth soundtrack brims over with mood-setting creativity. The bad guys, (whoever you decide they are) particularly Vithaya Pansringarm’s Chang, are truly terrifying – proving far more haunting than any mythic monster could ever dream of becoming. Those familiar with Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002) or Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy (2003) will understand that sometimes cinema simply makes you feel bad but ensures that it will resonate forever in the process of doing so. Only God Forgives firmly belongs in the divisive category of unforgettable ‘feel-bad’ cinema; a visceral, raw, and animalistic battle of attrition from which you may never recover, but undoubtedly will never forget.