Only God Forgives (R18)

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The ViewAuckland Review

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Review byMatthew Turner2/08/2013

Three out of Five stars
Running time: 90 mins

Nicholas Winding Refn's follow up to Drive is an ultraviolent revenge thriller that's the very definition of style over substance, though the style is so mesmerising that you end up forgiving its various flaws.

What's it all about?
Written and directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, Only God Forgives is set in Thailand and stars Ryan Gosling (reteaming with Refn after Drive) as American ex-pat Julian, who deals drugs out of the Muay Thai boxing club he runs with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). When Billy rapes and kills a 16 year old prostitute, the mysterious Detective Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows the victim's father to avenge the crime by murdering Billy himself.

However, when Julian's mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives from America to collect her son's body, she's incensed that Julian has allowed Billy's death to go unpunished, so she compels him to find and kill the man responsible for his brother's murder. This sets off a vicious spiral of vengeance and murder that puts blank-faced Julian and karaoke-loving Chang on a deadly collision course.

The Good
Refn's ultra-stylised direction essentially strips the film down to three key elements: Cliff Martinez's incredible electronic score (and some equally stunning sound design work), Larry Smith's gorgeous, neon-drenched, corridor-prowling cinematography (there are shades of both Kubrick and Gaspar Noe) and some exceptional screen violence, by turns thrilling and sickening (one particular incident involving what appear to be steel chopsticks is guaranteed to have even the most hardened screen violence enthusiast wincing).

On top of that, Kristin Scott Thomas is mesmerising as Crystal and Refn gives her some wonderful moments, such as when she emasculates Julian during a dinner date by pointing out to his date (Rhatha Phongam as Mai) that he has a small penis or defends Billy's actions by remarking ‘I'm sure he had his reasons...’ Similarly, Vithaya Pansringarm makes an intriguing adversary as the implacable, sword-wielding Detective Chang, not least because you're never entirely sure whether you're actually meant to be on his side (Billy, after all, was undoubtedly a nasty piece of work).

The Bad
With Refn's full-on style hitting you with both barrels, it's perhaps unsurprising that the film has no real room for substance, but it's fair to say that Julian's character in particular is frustratingly underdeveloped; the film as a whole is relatively dialogue-free, but you could probably count Gosling's lines on the fingers of one hand. Similarly, Gosling's performance is deliberately blank-faced and enigmatic, which makes it difficult to engage with his character or even to know whether we're supposed to be on his side, revenge-wise.

On top of that, the relentless cycle of violence, karaoke, the occasional line of dialogue, violence, karaoke, etc eventually becomes repetitive, leaving you with the feeling that the film actually has very little to say about the nature of revenge or indeed violence itself.

Worth seeing?
Only God Forgives is impressively directed, beautifully shot and features what is probably the best soundtrack of the year, but there's also a nagging feeling that this is a case of style over substance.

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Only God Forgives (R18)
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Content updated: 21/11/2019 18:45

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