On the eve of its debut in Cannes, the expectations for Only God Forgives were high. Just two years before, Danish wunderkind Nicolas Winding Refn and Canadian pin-up Ryan Gosling had delivered the eighties-flavored, violently poetic Drive to massive acclaim. Only God Forgives couldn’t live up to the hype and landed like a thud.
Truth is, this haunting flick is quite remarkable, although it doesn’t soar as high as the previous Gosling-Refn collaboration. A dark thriller set in the Thai underworld and soaked in Old Testament righteousness, Only God Forgives follows Julian, a passive drug smuggler dealing with the murder of his brother. The sibling died at hands of a grieving father, in retaliation for the rape and murder of his teenage daughter.
Even though Julian thinks his brother had it coming, his domineering mother (Kristin Scott-Thomas, a nightmare in pink) coerces him into avenge him. Their enquiry leads them to Chang, a karaoke-loving, sword-wielding police lieutenant whose notion of law and order comes straight from ancient Babylonia.
More than the plot, the key of Only God Forgives is the surreal atmosphere. A red and gold soaked environment acts like an octagon for these veritable forces of nature (think of an evil Wes Anderson, or better yet, David Lynch). At first sight, it seems that Gosling is recreating the role of Driver, but Julian has a number of mother issues that make his relationship with Scott-Thomas’ character fascinating.
Ultimately, Only God Forgives is about the difference between justice and revenge. Even the simplicity of Talion Law –the prevailing system in this particular world- allows paradoxes and may lead two half-decent men to destroy each other. This film is not for everybody, but it’s far more satisfactory than the early word claimed, particularly Cliff Martínez incredible electric score.
Three and a half silent-but-deadly prairie dogs. Available in iTunes and video on demand.