There seems to be no way to write a positive review about this film without it becoming a defence but here we go:
After 2011’s, Drive*, it looked like Nic Winding Refn was going to remake Logan’s Run with star Ryan Gosling and a budget of over $200,000,000. That didn’t happen so, with his biggest hit to date (US$76 mil worldwide) behind him, he fucked off to see Wild Bunch in France and got himself five million to make this. Ex-pat American brothers Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling) run a Muay Thai boxing club as a front for a drug running business. When Billy is beaten to death for murdering an underage prostitute, Julian is ordered by his mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), to find the killer. Julian soon discovers that it was a revenge killing by the victim’s father, sanctioned by a mysterious police officer named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who may actually be God…
I think Refn is, at least, to be admired for going off and doing something as divisive and daring as this because it is that rarest of things: a complete director’s vision! Refn is in complete control of what he is doing. This is a culmination of the style, the pace and the preoccupations of the director’s work to date. The slower rhythms and the fascination with sex and violence have almost always been there and Refn knowing that after Drive, he could do whatever he wanted to; he has grabbed the bull by the proverbials and done his own thing regardless! That it is so singular and out there is the thing that makes you think Refn probably won’t do a hundred-million dollar movie unless the studio sees it his way. He doesn’t do half measures and the idea of compromising whatever message is swimming around in his head, clearly is non-negotiable… so you make Only God Forgives instead.
Secondly: yes, it’s dark, arty and pretentious and it remains so right through to the triumphant/spiritual karaoke climax but wouldn’t you rather see someone do a violent revenge fantasy where it says something other than “violence begets violence” and “he who fights monsters should see to it that he does not become monstrous”? BORING! SEEN IT! Refn’s subtext for Only God Forgives is oblique and obtuse but it’s less a fart in a lift than it is a fart in a nunnery. It’s deliberately thumbing it’s nose at accepted standards and ‘worthy’ films about violence. It’s pretentiousness butting up against another type of pretension and I’d rather have the subversive pretension to be honest.
It’s style over substance, certainly but what style! DOP Larry Smith makes good on his previous collaborations (Bronson, Fear X) with Refn and gives us a blood red, neon underworld that actually has great subtlety (getting depth in scenes that are entirely red and black is no mean feat). The transformation of grimy motels and tacky, plastic restaurants into a gorgeous Hell on Earth is something overlooked because of the film’s lurid nature but lurid can be beautiful too. Plus, the synchronicity between actors and camera is the best these eyes seen since Once Upon a Time in the West. Like Roy Andersson, the specificity of his direction could so easily stifle the actors but that Refn gets great performances within such particular boundaries also flags up what an underrated actors’ director he is. Apparently he always starts by asking what they want to do then, presumably, slots that in to what he wants.
In the end, it is dark, arty and pretentious… but is that always a bad thing?
*I’ve linked the opening five minutes rather than the trailer because the trailer gives too much away.