Danish director terrible Nicolas Winding Refn's follow-up to the celebrated if divisive stylized neo-noir Drive is, simultaneously, the flip-side and the logical extension of that film. And it's entirely in keeping with the director's flashy yet visceral and often pretentious previous work. Melding the visual stylization and genre codification that made Drive the talk of the global town in 2011 with the most outlandish head-trips of earlier films such as Fear X or Valhalla Rising, Only God Forgives burrows deeper into the rabbit hole of style-as-substance; it's less a narrative thriller than a multimedia installation with blood red neon as its colour motif.

     The tale of American expats in Bangkok falling foul of the city's mysterious all-seeing enforcer, the film seems to be constantly floating in a sort of numb, hazy hallucination, heightened by the gliding slow-motion pans of DP Larry Smith's camera and the pulsing electro swooshes of Cliff Martinez's score. It could very well be all in the mind of Thai boxing impresario Julian (Ryan Gosling, returning from Drive), whose depraved brother has died at the hands of the almost supernatural Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), and whose Gorgon of a mother (a surprising Kristin Scott Thomas) flies out for revenge and retribution. Julian is constantly observing but always out of the central narrative loop, and his passive presence underlines how much Only God Forgives is not so much filmed as it is choreographed - everything placed precisely where Mr. Refn wants it to be, and nowhere else.

     All of that, plus the opaqueness of the narrative thread (eventually disintegrating towards the end), says this is obviously deliberate. Mr. Refn seems to take some dark pleasure in losing the audience in the myriad folds of his twisting films as he burrows deeper into his obsessional territories, something that makes all the sense in the world when you realise he has dedicated his film to legendary midnight-movie maestro Alejandro Jodorowsky. But, for all that, there's also a growing sense the director is not only losing his audience but himself as well - the progressive, almost Lynchian disintegration of plot, the practical absence of well-rounded characters, substituted by archetypes, reduce Only God Forgives to a pageant of boldly coloured, often violent tableaux that look ravishing but bring nothing to the table. Mr. Refn may be cornering himself into a role of agent provocateur that his evident directing talent is far too great for.

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Rhatha Phongam, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke
Director and writer: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cinematography: Larry Smith (colour)
Music: Cliff Martinez
Designer: Beth Mickle
Costumes: Wasitchaya Mochanakul
Editor: Matthew Newman
Producers: Lene Børglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent Maraval (Gaumont, Wild Bunch, Space Rocket Nation and Motel Movies in association with Bold Films, Danish Radio Filmklubben and Nordisk Film Shortcut)
France/Denmark/USA/Sweden, 2012, 89 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), July 18th 2013


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