Only God Forgives is the latest film from feted Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. At one stage best known for grungy thrillers made on his home turf such as the acclaimed Pusher trilogy, in 2011 he broke into the mainstream with Drive. The critically lauded film, adapted from James Sallis' book, featured Ryan Gosling in the role of a near-silent yet psychotic getaway driver and was heralded as one of the best films of the year. It was also Refn's first collaboration with composer and ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers member Cliff Martinez. Only God Forgives, their second collaboration, has generated a much more divisive reaction. A brutally violent, strikingly-shot tale of vengeance set in the Bangkok underworld, Gosling again takes the lead role as Julian, a drug runner forced by his monstrous mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge his brother's death at the hands of a retired cop called Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). The film has been dismissed by many as a pretentious wallow in self-indulgence. That said, you'd be hard-pressed to see another movie this year with such a precision-honed, nightmarish sense of atmosphere. And much of the credit for that goes to Martinez' dreamy, hazy score.
Very often, Martinez' work - which has encompassed hit films from Steven Soderbergh's Traffic and Contagion to this year's Richard Gere drama Arbitrage - works brilliantly well on-screen but struggles to engage when separated from it. Not so Only God Forgives. Whereas Drive's textural, ambient tones are difficult to listen to on their own terms, Only God Forgives hones a more compelling, diverse soundscape, moving from dark dissonance to lush romanticism in a heartbeat. The musical mood shifts stem directly from Refn's film itself - a hellish, infernal blend of vengeance, oedipal drama and bizarre fairy tale. It seems the sheer, open-ended weirdness of Refn's film inspired Martinez to play many different textures off against each other, and the result is a compelling - but by no means easy - listen.
What Martinez does brilliantly is align textural aspects of the music with particular characters and scenarios. As is the case with much of Martinez' work, this isn't a score of themes so much as tone, although there are recognisable motifs weaving their way through the score. The end result is a fluid, shifting sense of mood, with new musical devices and instruments constantly being introduced and creeping up on the listener unawares. The score opens with the brief, yet dark and forbidding, "Only God Forgives", whose ominous tones capture the justice-seeking Chang, possibly the God of the title. Given that Chang's take on justice is closer to barbarism, Martinez' score opens with a deal of clattering Oriental percussion and growling brass to set a suitably threatening mood. This is one of the core elements that will make its way through the score; the other being the darkly enticing, string-led theme for the twisted relationship between Gosling and Scott-Thomas' characters that first appears in "Chang Vision". Although attractive, its intent – to portray the perverse, possibly incestuous relationship between mother and son – is clear.
There's also a grungy, atmospheric "city at night" piece, first heard in "Chang and Sword", that seethes with danger, the tapping percussion, electronica and guitar effects creating a wonderfully seedy sense of Bangkok after dark. A surprisingly beautiful synthesised theme is introduced in "Sister Part 1" (written by group M83) that owes a debt to one of the masters of such music, Angelo Badalamenti. Indeed, on listening to it, one could be forgiven for thinking it was from Twin Peaks or another David Lynch project. In fact, it's probably the most attractive track in the score.
These ideas, at times approximating sound design more than conventional film music, weave an intricate tapestry throughout the score in a way that is genuinely hypnotic. Highlights include the lush faux-romance of "Crystal Checking In", "Crystal and the Bodybuilders" and the amusingly titled "Mai Quits Masturbating"; the unexpected, brilliant organ injection in "More Hands"; and the sheer disturbing terror of "Ladies Close Your Eyes", which is about as uncomfortable as film music gets. The music accompanies a horrific torture scene in the film and the strings themselves seem to squeal in pain as the track progresses. It's unlikely to be a piece of music that listeners will return to but it's far more creative than your standard suspense/horror music.
Also interspersed are some genuine oddities, none more than Martinez' arrangement of the song "Can't Forget", sung by actor Pansringarm in the scenes where Chang croons his heart out in a local karaoke bar! Strange as it is to say, both this and the arrangement of the Proud song "You're My Dream" are surprisingly affecting and beautiful. They also add a further layer of surreal weirdness to the score! However, the most impressive track of all is undoubtedly "Wanna Fight", quite possibly the best piece of film music from 2013. A throbbing electronic undercurrent, not too dissimilar from Daft Punk's exceptional work on Tron: Legacy, whirs its way underneath some monumental, booming organ chords to create a soundscape that is utterly thrilling and unique. It's as if Daft Punk were themselves crossed with music from a Hammer horror movie. Unashamedly operatic, it's an exceptional piece of film scoring.
Also impressive are the contradictory emotions present in "Julian and the Body", which moves from the mother/son material through dreamy xylophone sounds to eventually build into a frighteningly dissonant piece that ends with hints of the organ. Martinez is exceptionally skilled at using different components of the orchestra and electronics to suggest the often violent interplay between the characters. "Time to Meet the Devil" begins with some repetitious, John Carpenter-esque piano work that's soon joined by tapping percussion and synths to create an arresting sound. Likewise, the climactic "Put It Back On" begins in unnervingly minimalistic fashion before layers of synths and echoing, clanging percussion bring the score to a not exactly fulfilling close.
But then, just like the film itself, the score's intention isn't to be fulfilling or nourishing in the straightforward sense. It's out to challenge the listener and create a dark soundscape into which one can be lulled and then horrified by. In that sense, it replicates the experience of watching the film perfectly. It's also a difficult score to review given that one track may move through several musical ideas in the course of a couple of minutes. Truly, this is a score that needs to be felt, that needs to be experienced in one sitting so that the atmosphere can sink in. It also must be said that, like all of Martinez' scores, its primary function is to serve the film rather than act as an easily palatable listen outside of it. It's true that as a standalone listening experience, Only God Forgives is more interesting and engaging than much of the composer's other work – but it's still vital to hear the music in its cinematic context. Only then will the contradictory layers of sound make sense.