Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
For anyone expecting this film to be another version of ‘Drive’, be prepared. The much-anticipated movie ‘Only God Forgives’ is equally mesmerising, but not nearly as accessible.
Director Nicholas Winding Refn, who worked with lead actor Ryan Gosling in 'Drive', has paired up with him again. And the director keeps up his preference for lingering takes, contemplative silences and highly stylised cinematography – so stylised to the point that there is barely any dialogue.
Every blink and every sideway glance is given an oppressively languorous shot. Still, it remains hypnotising.
As the owner of a kickboxing gym that is a front for his drug-dealing business, Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a laconic, brooding front man, whose intentions never seem obvious. It is symptomatic of the shift between the real and surreal throughout the film’s non-linear narrative.
The stark, gritty version of Bangkok by night, with its back alleys, brothels and Muay Thai boxing rings, lends itself perfectly to this crime thriller. Rich brocade wallpapers and a permanent red neon glow are the only semblance of warmth in this cold, unfeeling underworld. It quickly becomes a canvas to be painted red with one cold-blooded killing or torture after another.
The brutality kicks in within the first 10 minutes of the movie, when a murder takes place. It sets the stage for Julian's revenge mission, egged on by his mother Crystal, who is played by Kristin Scott Thomas.
The British actress' take as the stone cold matriarch is unsettling. With her heavy eye makeup and platinum locks, she morphs into a beastly American capable of throwing even the most poisonous insult even during a rare moment of vulnerability.
The most riveting character, however, is Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm. As Lieutenant Chang, he upholds the law, but plays to his own rules as well, performing violent amputations when the occasion arises.
Between Chang and Julian, you can never quite decide who the protagonist or antagonist is.
The movie is humourless, but it is still capable of drawing uncomfortable laughs during a scene in a karaoke bar.
The lack of warmth in the characters made it hard to feel any real attachment to any of them. The thin plot meandered, but the utter lack of dialogue, combined with visually stunning images, made for powerful scenes.
Cliff Martinez’s score was a standout, with eerie synths and discordant strings punctuating the deliberate silences in the movie.
Depending on how you like your movies, this is not something that everyone will enjoy. There were a few people who walked out of the cinema hall midway through the movie preview. It was as polarising when it was screened at Cannes earlier this year, garnering both standing ovations and boos.
But if you are a fan, this movie is thought-provoking as it is stylish, the kind that warrants multiple viewings. You are left pondering over it, long after the movie ends.