Neo-Classic Crime Film: ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013)

By Anthony Moretta

Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives is a grimy throwback. Danger and debauchery paint the walls and pavement, and violence settles all scores and sick sentiments.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) is the Bangkok liaison for his drug-trafficking mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), and tasked with whacking his brother Billy's (Tom Burke) killers. Thing is, Billy was into roughing up young prostitutes, even snuffing one out to her father's devastation. The local police chief and karaoke lounge-singer, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), leaves the grieving, hot-tempered dad to club Billy to death. But, Chang isn't a street-justice flag-bearer. He's a martial arts expert and nasty disher of self-righteous punishment, who carries a razor-sharp sword sheathed under the back of his shirt. The whore's pop had his say and then he pays with his hand, lopped off by Chang's blade, for letting his daughter become a streetwalker. When Crystal visits to find out that Julian didn't go through with the hit, she hires her own assassins, leading to a cascade of bloody violence and denouement.

Crystal is a potty-tongued, sexy beast of perversion, snaking the line between mother and criminal, and often mixing the two. She orders a drive-by on Chang and his crew, which is a mess from the start. Chang survives and sets out for his own form of retribution, slicing through Crystal's network, inventively painful and pandering. Revenge and redemption are one and the same in these parts.

Julian barely speaks. He runs a Muay Thai gym, stone-faced and sauced with a lusty obsession for a pretty stripper named Mai (Rhata Phongam), whom he tries to pass off as real love in front of his ultra-abrasive mom. Crystal bombs out the entire thing, leaving Julian looking to please something in this galaxy by offering on old-fashioned, two-fisted knuckler with Chang to square what happened to Billy. Julian's no match for Chang and gets his ass beat.

Chang tags Crystal with the failed cop hit and she meets the wrong end of his blade, but not before planting Julian and a thug in Chang's home, waiting to take him out. Julian drowns the plan. He puts three in the back of his associate when Chang's little daughter comes home from school. Chang lives again to play the vengeful, bad-ass angel of penance.

Refn stages this like a moving comic book, playing out like red-tinted storyboards, steeped in damp, dark, neon-buzzing shots. And it's beautifully arranged. Each scene framed with diligence by the crafty cinema mitts of Refn and cinematographer, Larry Smith. The fight scene, in particular, is movie marveling. Only God Forgives looks like Kubrick in execution and feels like Lynch in temperament (would be an interesting comparison with A Clockwork Orange [1971] and Mulholland Drive [2001]). And there are definite echoes of Cassavetes and Jarmusch, but Refn's flick lacks their heart and humor (maybe it's the Danish versus American sensibilities). These characters are wallpapered to the Thai concrete jungle, with emotional detachment to spare. But, as with all of Refn's films (Drive [2011] still being his best), Only God Forgives is a smack to the mouth - entertaining, intriguing, and wonderfully good-looking.

Yes, this is the third film starring Gosling that I've reviewed for the site. Hey, he's grown on me and he also happens to be in some pretty damn good movies. I know he has a legion of admirers for reasons not associated with his considerable acting ability. I'll admit he's handsome. And it doesn't bother me when a girl tells me he's hot. Because it's like me with Alicia Keys - no chance in hell.

Anthony Moretta is from Brooklyn, NY and writes about '70s crime films at Goodbye Like A Bullet. His writing has appeared in Out of the Gutter Online and is featured in the comics anthology, Unfashioned Creatures. His independent film project, Travels, is currently in post-production and he's also developing an original comic book series.