Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives arrived at the festival with a lot of expectations: reteaming the director with actor Ryan Gosling, many assumed it would be a sequel of sorts to their 2010 hit Drive. Unfortunately, many of those looking forward to the movie aren't exactly keen followers of the Danish auteur and were disappointed by this lurid, atmospheric drama. For those familiar with Refn's more experimental work – 2003's Fear X and 2009's Valhalla Rising in particular – this may well turn out to be one of his most distinctive works.
Set in Bangkok, the film stars Ryan Gosling (in a role originally to be played by Luke Evans) as Julian, a British-American ex-pat now living in Bangkok, where he manages a boxing club. The club is a front for a drug-smuggling ring, dealing in heroin and cocaine, and is overseen by Julian's older brother Billy (Tom Burke). We don't get to see that much of Billy before he decides to “visit the devil”, which involves picking up a teenager hooker and brutally murdering her. At the crime scene, the police arrive and allow the victim's father to take his revenge on Billy, almost literally beating him to a pulp. Julian spares the man, but the arrival of his mother Crystal (Kristen Scott-Thomas) kickstarts a cycle of vengeance that soon spins bloodily out of control.
Programmed for an 8.30am start, Refn's film would have benefited from a later slot, being a hellish, dreamlike vision of purgatory that works better as an immersive experience than a narrative. All performances are minimal and stylised, with a heavy use of red that excludes almost every other colour in the spectrum.
Larry Smith's cinematography is superb, and his crisp, sometimes hallucinatory visuals are complimented by Cliff Martinez's thrumming score, which neatly fuses Thai instruments and local ballads to create an otherworldly fusion. The story itself is spare and simple, a platform for some very extreme and inventive violence. But the curious, ethereal mood ensures that nothing is especially sadistic or shocking, rather Only God Forgives is about violence in the way that Drive was about driving: both films are really an reflection of a mental state, only this time the hero is at the mercy of a higher being and has no hope of redemption.
The US gets this Only God Forgives on July 19, but we’re going to have to be a little bit patient as British cinemagoers will have to wait until August 2.