Only God Forgives is not a pleasant experience. Watching it is akin to letting viscous ichor fill your veins. It’s like a David Lynch take on a spaghetti-western tale of revenge; the deep rumbling bass tones, thick shadows and vibrant, hellish reds channel Lynch’s style. The dark, labyrinthine corridors that contain Julian (Ryan Gosling)’s Bangkok apartment evoke Lost Highway, while his hallucinatory flirtation with his dancer girlfriend capture Lynch’s sense of the absurd, intercut with unexplained, preening bodybuilders. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s use of static shots and slow, implacable zooms draws the audience into the film like aghast spectators at a terrible accident.
Refn’s film has a received a profoundly negative critical reaction and it’s somewhat justified. When Only God Forgives tries to explicate its Oedipal themes in the last act, it reveals that it’s fundamentally thematically hollow, or at least anaemic. But the dismissal of the film as style over substance is misguided when that style is so aggressively enthralling. This is a reptilian brain film; fighting and fucking and spare archetypes – THE FIGHTER, THE GIRLFRIEND, THE MATRIARCH, THE DEVIL – with its scarce, minimalist dialogue contrasted by its maximalist artificiality. Stands among the best, not worst, films of 2013.