Gosling and Refn: Only God Forgives Review

Following on from his 2009 Sydney Film Festival win, Nicholas Winding Refn returns (via Cannes) with his latest offering Only God Forgives.

Nicholas Winding Refn is one of the more interesting European directors to hit Hollywood of late. His didactic approach to narrative, highly stylised action sequences and uncanny ability to control and manipulate emotional rhythms has been recognised in art house circles for some time.

While Bronson garnered a wider audience, undoubtedly the real breakthrough for Refn came in the form of 2011’s Drive, a surprise success given the small budget awarded to the project. The understated acting of Ryan Gosling alongside moments of synth-pop driven excess converted this small time action movie into a mainstream success.

Understandably, the hype for his follow up feature Only God Forgives has been palpable. It’s premiere at Cannes earlier this year was tepid to say the least according to the reports of walkouts and boos that dominated headlines. With this in mind it should be made clear – if you are expecting Only God Forgives to be a spiritual sequel to Drive then your reaction will most likely be the same.

Despite his decision to continue collaborating with Gosling, Only God Forgives is certainly a return to Refn’s earlier style.  It is an uber-violent revenge tragedy set in neon-drenched Bangkok where Julian (Gosling) and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) operate a Mixed Martial Arts centre as a front for their lucrative international drug operation.

The opening is woozy as we jump through time and dreamscapes until Billy is murdered for his involvement with underage prostitutes. As Julian contemplates revenge on the killer his mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives from LA demanding the heads of those who killed her first-born son.  This order pits Julian against Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) a former police chief whose bloodthirsty quest to rid the city of crime and prostitution is unyielding.

Ultimately, the film is a laconic and nightmarish vision of the Thai underworld. Stylistically it evokes the work of Stanley Kubrick in that the soundtrack juxtaposed with scenes of extreme violence end up imbuing banal moments like people singing karaoke with nefarious undertones (certainly a major influence on this is Refn’s cinematographer Larry Smith who worked with Stanley Kubrick on The Shining).

Like Drive, Only God Forgives pulses with brutal, sexual rhythms that elevate the tension to boiling point. The film’s pace however will ask a lot from its audience’s patience and for some it may be too abstract and perhaps even too violent. Fans of Refn should still find a lot to be excited about.

Only God Forgives screens as part of the Sydney Film Festival: Saturday June 15 at 7pm and Sunday June 16 at 12:30pm.

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