Nicolas Winding Refn’s earlier venture, Drive, revolved around an ordinary man who felt compelled to embody an ideal action hero. Circumstances present him with the opportunity (and fate) of fulfilling this action hero persona he not only wants to be, but, believes he is. Here, Julian, a terrified boy haunted by mystic tales of a moral reprimander Chang, is thrown into circumstances that force him to confront this ghoul, who also happens to be his worst nightmare. Both films bear similar intent and share the same language. They are based on real emotions, but set in a heightened reality.
The troubled and tortured Julian is both heart and soul of this terribly bleak world. He is the first tragic character in the Refn universe. Ryan Gosling discards his tough guy persona (largely evident in Drive and for a shorter span of time in The Place beyond the Pines) and delivers his most complex performance yet. Just watch him paralyzed with fear when Chang first sets his eyes on him. Or his mouth quiver when a trailed Chang is suddenly nowhere to be seen.
What makes Vithaya Pansringaram such an unforgettable embodiment of horror? A combination of his receding hairline (which is befitting to Chang’s all-knowing nature and intuitive ability), the nonchalant expression borne throughout on his face (you won’t see a hint of remorse) and the fact that he treats both his professions, karaoke singing and slicing limbs, with equal importance. The way the film cuts between him at both of his fortes brings about a matter-of-fact routinely nature, as if it was just another working day. Refn pits Julian and Chang against each other in a fight sequence choreographed with deep thought that will subvert all prior expectations. I expose this to you because it wasn’t nearly what I was expecting.
Kristin Scott Thomas channelizes Crystal, Julian’s mother, a woman who possesses the survival instincts and domination-seeking tendencies of an apex predator. She wouldn’t think twice to serve up her little sacrificial lamb on a silver platter. It’s a delicate role that could veer off into caricature, but Thomas conveys her unapologetic nature so effectively that the abominable Crystal fits in Refn’s world perfectly. The auteur has a clear-cut vision of his characters even though their extreme characterizations tend to border on archetypal.
I’ve never in my cinema-associated life felt a stronger and keener sense of dread. And knowing that this mirrors Julian’s own sense of dread only elevates Only God Forgives in my eyes. Seriously, has there ever been a piece of music to intentionally evoke a sense of queasiness? Or stomach-churning fright? Cliff Martinez seems to have achieved both of these milestones here.
This horror mood piece is intense, sharply impressionistic and Refn’s most definitive work to date. I’ve, seen...no, experienced nothing like it.