Only God Forgives
A lot of people walked out of the screening of Only God Forgives I attended, some early on, perhaps in revulsion at the deliberate, nightmarish pacing, perhaps at the film’s provocative, neon-basking refusal to offer much in the way of recognisable narrative or cinematic succour of any kind: it’s claustrophobic, arid, glacial, and often jarring, both in terms of its purposefully ruptured sequencing (more on that later) and in its rapid switching between solemn, anomic poise and bursts of luridly upsetting violence.
(I always enjoy these mid-film evacuees: you failed! Off you go! (Which is ridiculous, really, as you want cinemagoers to enjoy such efforts in the hope that more will be made etc etc.))
The film opens in a manner that might’ve fooled many of those dozen or so drop-outs: it’s decisively solemn and one-speed but a lot of comforting popcorn tropes are there, even if they’re deployed a little strangely and suggestively. Many a well-loved Hollywood cop film begins in peculiar fashion (though soon slips into type), or makes room for odd moments, and this, from the off presented in bleak, saturated comic book tones, still gives you an agreeable ‘in’. It looks initially like a straight-out revenge thriller set up with a backdrop of exotic testosterone run amok: signpostedly-malevolent and wired drug-dealer brother (Tom Burke: the face of a ruined and rancorous boxer) of Ryan Gosling’s kickboxing-gym proprietor gets a bit lairy, before getting a whole lot more lairy and murdering a prostitute. In marches, like some implacable, inexorably mental restaurateur-alike taken to strolling the nocturnal Bangkok night streets, a man hardly ringing any initial alarm bells, who we are soon to understand is a martial, commanding police officer, a dapper, inscrutable angel of death, glintingly shod, his approach marked by the tolling clop of his shoes.
He is, and I hasten to employ such cliché but for its necessity, a ‘force of nature’, not really a human being as such, more a personification of corrective, inventively apt justice. He has a sword that appears to be sequestered in his back that he ceremonially unsheathes to dole out the hand of Bangkok’s ire. He is the man charged with dealing in unspeakable, inarguable, eternal truths, which arrive, at his bidding, in the form of savage punishments.
He in many ways adheres to a long line of eccentric screen crazies, and urbane psychosis or deadpan bloodlust is far from new. What marks this particular manifestation apart is all in Vithaya Pansringarm’s performance. It just feels wrong, not only to witness the appalling violence dealt to those that fall under his fatal attention but that a guy that looks so avuncular might be nuts enough to commit such principled, carefully-chosen cruelty…and that of course adds to the peculiarly nasty dread factor. (The film is interspersed with Pansringarm’s increasingly gruesome and piquant karaoke renditions of cheesy songs, the cop audience more like churchgoers: reverent and unflinching. Justice, entertainment, all part of the same regimen. And such musical intervals exacerbate the sense of a fatalistic disconnect.)
(Brief aside: director Nicolas Winding Refn seems, more than ever, to bear Kubrick’s influence here. You have the sense of extreme, almost too-perfectionistic care with every frame. But yet more redolent of Kubrick is the way everyone moves. Pansringarm glacially marauds around like the mysterious antagonist stalking Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, or Cruise himself moving through sanitised night streets like a designer spectre, or Malcolm McDowell tipping his glass in exuberant slow-mo, or Philip Stone’s warped Jeeves suddenly and solidly statuesque as the mask slips…a very deliberate, dreamlike stultification, or a floating, menacing, immutable gait that just doesn’t remotely cohere with comfort. It’s the movement of a being neither dead or alive, but somehow eternal and inexorable. We might term it Kubrickmotion: akin to something both recognisably sentient and troublingly inhuman. Outside time perhaps? Languid and inevitable. Something set in slow-motion by something awful. David Lynch is similarly affected, but rather than forcing his performers into a disquieting and exacting one-speed unheimlich-glide, he has them filmed backwards, or uses very obvious (albeit powerfully disorienting) slow-mo.)
So the plot beyond Pansringarm’s introduction: he affords the father of the murdered prostitute the chance to redeem his daughter by doing ‘whatever he wants’ to Gosling’s brother: cue scene of hotel room carnage splatter and clattered remains. Gosling’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) flies in to creepily cajole him into wreaking revenge, all cheekbones and chic tones, and suggests a kind of Madonna/Ellen Barkin modulated psycho fusion. We also learn that, as well as being a dubious diva, she’s behind the gym setup which is a front for mass drug running into Bangkok.
Gosling sets about a queasy rendition of dutiful, obsequious son, hiring a prostitute to play girlfriend, refusing to succumb to mother’s belittling provocations (not easily, and not without a bit of unsubtle Oedipal shenanigans re: scene staging) and, in the end, bending to her wishes. Such observance of maternal demands initiates a sequence of murderous deliverance that begets predictable mayhem, including a hard-to-watch comeuppance for one of Scott Thomas’s underlings of Un Chien Andalou proportions and a swift and sardonically apt farewell for Scott Thomas, all concluding in a peculiarly-drawn finale involving yet another not-quite-real assemblage of a surreally contrived nature and another ‘fitting’ act of violent reproach that in terms of internal logic manages to pass as curiously coherent.
Only God Forgives is in every conceivable way an unusual take on the revenge thriller, and you could easily argue the notable influence of a raft of directors, from Jodorowsky, to whom the film is dedicated, to De Palma, Scorsese, Lynch, Kubrick, Herzog, Tarkovsky, Von Trier, Fassbinder, Roeg…all of which suggests that Refn has, in fact, produced something genuinely unique. Queasy though it undoubtedly is, your best bet with Only God Forgives is to follow the impeccably-uniformed acolytes observing the aforementioned grisly karaoke performances: it’s not necessarily about enjoyment – deference is often the correct response.