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New Release Review - Only God Forgives

An American drug dealer in Bangkok comes up against the retired cop responsible for his brother's death.

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Tom Burke, Gordon Brown


When American drug dealer Billy (Burke) kills a 16-year-old Thai prostitute, he is murdered in turn by the girl's father, an act facilitated by retired cop Chang (Pansringarm). Billy's mother, Crystal (Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok to identify her son's corpse and immediately vows revenge on Chang. Her remaining son, Julian (Gosling), is reluctant, feeling Billy had it coming, but gives in to the pressure exerted by the domineering Crystal. At first hiring a crew to take out Chang, Julian soon accepts he must encounter the vigilante himself.
In Refn and Gosling's previous collaboration, the over-rated 'Drive', there's a pivotal scene in which Gosling's character approaches the door of a restaurant with murder on his mind but turns back at the last moment. In the Danish director and Canadian star's follow-up, Gosling is constantly approaching doorways but this time neither he nor Refn back away. In Refn's hyper-real film world, the doorway seems to serve as a gate to hell, and the many corridors of 'Only God Forgives' throb with a red neon, recalling the portal to hell masquerading as a ballet school from Dario Argento's 'Suspiria'. The Italian is clearly an influence on Refn, one of many film-makers you can't help compare his work to. The almost alternate reality setting of Bangkok here is reminiscent of the Walter Hill films 'The Warriors', 'Streets of Fire' and 'Johnny Handsome'. Crystal, the foul-mouthed matriarch, seems heavily inspired by Ellen Barkin's character from the latter, right down to her peroxide hairstyle. The ultra-symmetrical compositions owe a lot to Kubrick and Jodorowsky. From David Lynch, Refn borrows his trademarks of characters breaking out into song in contrast with moments of extreme violence, and background characters behaving as though they belong in an entirely different scene, or indeed movie.
The previous paragraph probably makes 'Only God Forgives' sound like a must-see but that's sadly far from the case. It's without a doubt the best looking film of 2013 thus far, thanks to the cinematography of Larry Smith, the production design of Beth Mickle, and Refn's expert direction. There's also a cracking score by Cliff Martinez which recalls Angelo Badalamenti's work on Lynch's 'Twin Peaks'. Anytime a character is required to speak, however, the movie becomes groan-worthy. Everything out of Crystal's mouth seems written purposely to shock but just comes off as infantile and pathetic, as does the film's sadistic violence. Like his fellow Dane, Lars Von Trier, Refn lets himself down with his immaturity. He may consider his partnership with Gosling on a par with that of Lynch and Kyle MacLachlan, but for moments of 'Only God Forgives' it feels a lot more like the incomprehensible and unintentionally comic movies of Godfrey Ho and Richard Harrison, but nowhere near as fun. Refn has shown plenty of evidence that he knows how to tell a story visually. If only he could find one worth telling.
6/10


Eric Hillis

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