As a piece of unforgettable modern art, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives is without peer.
Visually striking, it is a starkly lit, arresting mix of midnight blacks, overcast grays and lurid neon-hued red, oranges, yellows and purples, communicating with one glance themes of murder, violence and betrayal.
The only problem is it’s supposed to be a movie.
And as a movie, alas, it is a bloody triumph of style over substance.
Only God Forgives, which sees Refn reunited with the star of his last film noir vehicle, Drive, is unarguably an artistically breathtaking piece of work.
From the austerely silent opening scenes, which are broken only by the grunts of Thai boxers and the encouraging murmurs of the crowd surrounding the large ring they are fighting in, it quickly becomes clear that Refn is looking to establish unmistakably strong sense of time and place.
In that he succeeds admirably.
From the bleak interiors of the boxing club, a front for the massive drug smuggling operation run by Julian and his sociopathic, paedophiliac brother Billy (Tom Burke) which is overseen from afar by his coldly cruel mother Crystal (Kristin Scott-Thomas in impressive form) to the alternately dimly and gaudily lit streets of Bangkok, the movie is a study in film noir elegance.
Even the day time shots are framed by grim overcast skies, or a muddied orange-dappled sunsets, creating a sense that you are locked in some otherworldly landscape, populated by people with a rigid adherence to unforgiving Old Testament morality.
It is a world where an eye is taken for an eye, a hand for a hand, and justice is not a matter of fronting up to a brightly lit well-run court, but of being summarily executed in a prostitutes den by razor-sharp hair pins while the ladies of the night close their eyes to the graphic violence happening mere metres from their mute forms.
Or having your hand chopped off in a weed-filled vacant lot because you neglected to protect your daughter from murderous thugs like Billy, who is killed close to the start of the movie after brutally, and bloodily, dispatching a 16 year old girl he had just had sex with.
And no one escapes unscathed from the escalating bonfire of violence that Billy’s sins unleash.
As sure as the never-seen sun follows the suffocating black of always present night, you will pay for your sins, most likely at the hands of Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), known for good reason as the “Angel of Death”.
Not one for the due process of law, he enforces with whatever tools are within reach, a rigid, again unforgiving code of honour and morality that mandates swift and certain punishment in favour of the slow turning of the creaky wheels of hesitant justice.
And it is he alone who remains standing, singing as always in his favourite karaoke bar, once the bloody whorl of orgiastic violence has run its furious course.
In both look and feel, the merciless world that he and Julian, and the cast of other violently-dispatched players inhabits is vividly realised by Refn, its colours as austerely bright, and its nights impenetrably dark, as its mercy is absent.
Unfortunately for the audience, the high art of Refn’s cinematic vision, though pleasing to the eyes, and to the ears (the soundtrack is all powerful drums, and minor key melodies), is an emotionally-alienating one.
Ignoring the narrative imperative that there must be something inherently compelling or likeable about all your characters, the Danish director seeks to deliberately cast everyone in Only God Forgives in the most unforgiving, austere light possible.
While this serves the purposes of his story, such as it is, well, it leaves you feeling as if a thick opaque glass wall has been placed between you and those in the movie, with little or no emotional connection occurring with any of the characters.
In fact so divorced are you from any sense of being emotionally immersed in the movie, or invested in the fate of any of the characters, even a mildly sympathetic one like Julian (whose claims to virtue are tenuous indeed but elevated far above people like his mother or brother), that a nuclear bomb could have detonated in central Bangkok midway through the movie, and I would not have mourned for anyone.
This complete lack of any redeeming characteristics whatsoever across the board, is not helped by what appears to be a directive from Refn for the employing of uniformly blank, disaffected expressions, broken only by cries for mercy or screams of pain, almost as if the entire cast has had an overdose of paralysing botox.
The movements too, particularly of Lt. Chang, are highly stylised, slow and deliberate, but rather than suggesting brutal efficiency and the sure hand of moralistic certainty, however twisted, it instead brings to mind a Thai-themed episode of The Thunderbirds.
Not quite the artistic statement I’m sure Refn was aiming for.
Even so, as a statement of graphically-wrought, visually-stunning style, Only God Forgives is a standout body of work.
It makes inventive, and sometimes yes even beautiful, use of colours and shade, of sinuous, coldly calculating movement and blank canvas facial expressions, all wrapped in a good old fashioned, violence-punctuated morality tale that would have well received in medieval Europe, where they were fond of that kind of thing.
But as any kind of powerful narrative statement on the flaws and foibles, and downright vicious, self-dooming tendencies, of humanity, it comes up well short, having sacrificed too much emotional depth for its highly stylised, ultimately alienating, film noir look.