A Freudian fever dream that trips the bright lights of Bangkok fantastic like an ultraviolent David Lynchian version of Sleeping Beauty, Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives expands on the stylistic stream-of-consciousness technique he served up in Drive to outrageous effect, alienating most of his audience within the first act alone in a film determined to repulse and attract in equal measure.
Saturating the rich reds and greens of Thailand nightlife to Disneyfied effect by Eyes Wide Shut lensman Larry Smith, the aesthetic appeal of Only God Forgives is undeniable, particularly when the mostly dialogue-free images of Refn's nightmarish silent movie are married to Cliff Martinez's imaginative score, which creates horror with ambient noise and repetition and romance with native instruments to heighten the visceral response to Refn's work.
Although Forgives appears to be structured and indeed it was advertised like a modern day spin on a Charles Bronson revenge movie, the final result is anything but in a script so bizarre that lead actor Ryan Gosling wasn't shy about calling it "the strangest thing" he'd ever read.
Exiled from his Miami home for reasons that become apparent late into the picture, Muay Thai fight club manager Julian (Gosling) learns his volatile older brother has been murdered shortly after the film begins.
Initially driven to gun down the man who beat his brother to death, Julian changes his mind once he realizes that his brother Billy's death had been an act of revenge in its own right, discovering the unspeakable crime Billy had committed that sets the brutal (not to mention disturbingly misogynistic) tone of the movie and brings their Lady Macbeth-esque mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to town.
Demanding the head of the man who ended her son's life on a platter, Thomas gleefully chews scenery as the dominating matriarch whose relationship with her son bubbles over with incestuous Oedipal overtones from the moment she first appears in his bedroom in the exact same spot as his hired lover.
Easily dominating Gosling's near silent "Sleeping Beauty," who in fact utters one fewer line than Disney's heroine fifty-four years earlier by speaking just seventeen lines of dialogue in the film's ninety minute running time, Thomas's campy send-up of Donatella Versace meets Joan Crawford's Mommie Dearest helps keep you awake and interested when it becomes clear that the only audience Refn is playing to is himself.
While it undoubtedly would've been much stronger choosing one specific tone for the work as it moves uneasily from Lynchian shots of hallways to sequences of over-the-top revenge movie violence, ultimately Refn pulls us out of the Freudian dreamscape with far-too-literal interpretations of his psychosexual obsessions about wanting to return to the womb etc. to the point that it moves past pretentious to become something more than a little silly overall.
From an enigmatic "Angel of Vengeance" (Vithaya Pansringarm) who wields a sword while on duty as a Bangkok detective to serve as judge, jury and executioner (or more often remover-of-limbs) to an anticlimactic "fight" between the Angel and Julian, Refn has all of the pieces of a much better movie at his disposal but never quite manages to fit them together in a way that makes any sort of worthwhile bigger picture.
While fans of Kristin Scott Thomas won't want to miss the opportunity to see her play someone the likes of which we've never witnessed onscreen before -- from the rape and murder of a teenage girl in the first act to the disturbing mothers vs. sons sexual battle message that pervades the film and results in the treatment of Thomas like a dragon to be slain -- Forgives's heart is in the wrongest of places.
A tragedy when you realize how much talent is wasted by Refn, for those able to look past the nightmarish "message" of what basically amounts to a cinematographic therapy session, Only God Forgives is best experienced like a feature-length music video to appreciate the two greatest strengths of the work in the form of Smith's fairy tale visuals and Martinez's otherworldly score that shine in this Blu-ray transfer.
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