The top comment of the red-band YouTube trailer for Only God Forgives simply proclaims ‘Oedipus in Bangkok’. And it’s harder to find a more succinct point of entry than that. This is the second collaboration between Dane Nicolas Winding-Refn and Ryan Gosling and while 2011’s Drive was post-modern noir and quintessentially LA, here it is the streets of Bangkok that are given the Winding-Refn violence-as-aesthetic treatment.
Julian (Gosling) is a gang figure in the underworld of Bangkok whose brother is murdered after killing a prostitute. Their mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives unexpectedly to identify the body and goads Julian into a reprisal. While ‘Oedipus in Bangkok’ is reductive, it captures the innate violence and carnality of Only God Forgives. And, despite taking first prize at both the Cannes and Sydney Film Festivals, it has been divisive. The characters, Gosling’s battered Julian foremost among them, are less characters than fleshy vessels, tin-men prowling the streets. In this, and in the David Lynch-esque neon that permeates the film, it can be a disaffecting, disorienting experience.
Yet, despite the critique, Winding-Refn has a precise ideology framing Only God Forgives. Each moment of violence is curated so precisely that it begins to become just another aspect of the texture of the film. Which isn’t to downplay the gruesome nature of the violence itself, but to place it in its irreducible context – it’s a film that contains its own internal logic of noise and violence as reflective of its surrounds. Cause and effect don’t function in the Bangkok underworld, nor in the films of Winding-Refn. Action is dictated by primal necessity. It can make for masochistic viewing, but this doesn’t make it less essential.
Making unapologetically violent films isn’t a particularly taxing business. Justifying the violence, and rendering it as hypnotic as it is grotesque, is. As a companion to Drive, Only God Forgives is less formal, less straightforward and more aggressive, and even more impressive.
Only God Forgives is released in Australian cinemas on July 18.
For more of Honi’s coverage of the Sydney Film Festival see: