There's something undeniably beguiling about Ryan Gosling's face and the highly stylised, neon-bathed manner in which director Nicolas Winding Refn captures it. The standard forlorn expression may evoke shades of Joey Tribbiani's countenance during the whiffy throes of his 'smell the fart' acting forays, but within the framework of this brutal and compelling revenge thriller it packs the same visceral and emotive punch as in the pair's previous collaboration Drive.
The sublime Only God Forgives again positions Gosling as an immoral and taciturn anti-hero who appears disconnected from the world around him. He portrays Julian, a Bangkok based boxing promoter whose real line of work is peddling drugs.
When his paedophilic brother Billy is brutally slain by the father of a girl he murdered, with the consent of sword-bearing police chief Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the siblings' malevolent mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) turns up in Thailand demanding revenge. Yet in Chang, very much the 'God' of the title, she chose the wrong man to mess with - as demonstrated by the amount of limb severing and mutilation that ensues…
Refn's movie, which bears a similar pulsating electro soundtrack and crimson-soaked palette to his previous masterpieces Bronson and Drive, lends itself to intense post-viewing discussion. The intricately structured plot plays out like a platform computer game at times, with Chang (hellbent on revenge for some cop-slaying) needing to complete one level by defeating the baddie at the end, before progressing to the next stage and a tougher opponent.
Kubrickian tracking shots aesthetically reinforce this interpretation, although at no stage does Chang jump on a mushroom to gain more power. Potency is instead gained by Pansringarm's commanding turn, which juxtaposes very Lynchian forays into ethereal singing with horrific acts of judgment. Chang also appears to suffer from a touch of the 'Tribbianis', given that he spends much of the movie glancing sideways into the distance.
The myriad of metaphors, particularly those featuring various forms of 'penetration' that echo David Cronenberg's Videodrome, favour a reading of the movie as a modern-day retelling of the Oedipus Rex tragedy. This becomes verbally explicit at times in the stunning exchanges between Julian and Crystal, made even more electrifying by the magnificence of Gosling and Scott Thomas in their respective roles.
The former's inner torment contrasts superbly with the unreserved destructiveness of the latter, as epitomised by a dinner table conversation in which the mother mocks her remaining son over his penis size. It's the most jawdropping genital-related humiliation since Channel 5 screened Keith Chegwin's naturist gameshow Naked Jungle.
Only God Forgives may alienate certain viewers with its thematic ambiguity and deliberately slow pace, but should mesmerise those willing to be seduced by its hypnotic aesthetic qualities. The pairing of Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling again delivers a terrific fusion of star, subject matter and style.