Refn has managed to merge the seemingly unmergeable Kubrick and Lynch in this haunting nightmarish modern take on the Oedipus myth. Both Kubrick and Lynch use an aesthetic that may at first seem impenetrable, but they have varied greatly in their approaches; Kubrick being more methodical and logical in his creation process, Lynch being more emotional and referential. Refn takes the painstaking time to turn every frame into a work of art and builds one of the most haunting horror films I've seen in a while. The foreboding soundtrack and ominous tracking shots remind me of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining. Refn's dark caricatures would feel right at home up against the psychopathic Jack Torrence or Pvt. Pyle, or even the sexually incongruous Benjamin Horne or Frank Booth. Refn builds on the horrific qualities that Kubrick introduced in The Shining and aspires to something more akin to Lynch's Twin Peaks series on acid. Slap a velvet curtain in front of any of the numerous karaoke scenes and you have THE David Lynch shot. Only God Forgives has the nightmarish quality of being barely comprehensible. You get what's going on. You can follow the string that ties it all together. When you sit down and watch the scenes juxtaposed next to each other though, something feels off. You can see how you got from scene A to scene B. Then you can follow from scene B to scene C, but if you try to look back at how you got from A to C, it starts to get a little hazy. This is absolutely brilliant. Refn's ability to instill this dreamlike quality feels Lynchian, but on a whole new level.
While managing to create a unique aesthetic that borrows from two incredibly different filmmakers, Refn takes on the Oedipus story. While Oedipus feared his foretold father slaying and mother loving and actively ran from it, Gosling's Julian seems to wish that he could run away faster. His relationship with his mother is beyond messed up and there may have been some implied necrophilic incest there towards the end. I loved how Refn portrayed the oracle in this story. A Bangkok hooker, who helps Julian to see his fate, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam plays this role beautifully. This is a story of the folly's of revenge (as the title so aptly implies), and Refn experiments with how little he has to tell the audience in the dialogue for them to be able to follow. The low amount of dialogue makes the punches from what actually does get said hit all the harder. I couldn't help but get sucked into what visually being displayed, and then someone would open their mouths and I couldn't believe the filth that would come out, as if Chang's hidden broken sword had cut a slit in their face for their innards to spew forth. This film revels in the filth. Drive is a bleach wipe to Only God Forgives' used condom left in an alley.
Gosling, while still pretty much a mute, is a completely different character in this film. His struggle with letting go of the poison that is his drug-dealing incestuous mother, makes him so much more vulnerable than his character in Drive. I loved the buildup of showing this character as a Thai boxing scout, and putting him up against the statuesque boxer, to find out that he can't fight for shit. Exemplifying the fact that this guy is living a lie. He's not the man his mother wants him to be, but he pretends to be for so much of this film. He is the only character that doesn't actively seek revenge and shows compassion, but that can't save him from the destructive Tidal Wave of vengeance that is set off in the beginning when his brother rapes and kills a 16 year old.
It's quite amazing that the same filmmaker made Drive and Only God Forgives. They're both so incredible in different ways. I think Drive was more praised simply because Only God Forgives is so ambitious. While I do enjoy the character study that is Drive, the seedy world that Refn has created in Only God Forgives just feels so much deeper and rich.
Edit: I just read that Larry Smith was the cinematographer for Only God Fogives and also worked with Kubrick on many films, including The Shining. So it's no surprise I guess, that I saw such similarities.