On paper (and partially thanks to the trailer) it looked as though Nicolas Winding Refn's new film was going to be an all-too-similar follow up to his breakthrough cult hit Drive (2011), with the brooding, super-cool Ryan Gosling once again in the lead role. Cynical cinephiles were dubious as to whether Only God Forgives would just be an easy cash-in on the Drive formula. The response at Cannes was mixed to say the least. Booing and jeering from one side, standing ovations from the other, a split reception not often seen at the festival. Drive stood out from the crowd with an effectively silent antihero and lashes of ultra-violence painted with a euphoric 80s revival soundtrack. For better or worse. Only God Forgives does have something different to offer.

The place is Bangkok, the time is now, and the character is Julian - an American drug-smuggler fronting as a Muay Thai club owner in a beautiful yet seedy part of the capital. From the off we see Gosling's handsome mug as he lurks in the shadows at a boxing match, overseeing a drug deal involving his creepy, twisted, paedophile brother Billy. Soon after, Billy cruises the hot midnight streets in search of a young prostitute ("I wanna fuck a 14 year old"), and when he eventually finds one, after attacking a group of others, he rapes and brutally murders her. Enter the godlike Lieutenant Chang, aka "the Angel of Vengeance", who allows the girl's father to do as he wishes with the drunken Billy. You can guess what happens next. Chang isn't so straightforward though - he takes the father's arm off with his ornamental samurai sword as punishment for being an irresponsible dad. Revenge, vengeance and redemption are the blood flowing through this film's veins, and Refn doesn't stem the flow one bit.

Julian's mother flies over to clean up the mess and the film gets even weirder. Kristin Scott Thomas was an odd choice for the film and particularly this character, but she delivers so emphatically that it's almost forgotten she was once in Four Weddings and a Funeral. As the two brothers' mother, she is a poisonous, racist, homophobic, tyrannic witch of a woman who delivers the most hard-hitting, "what did I just hear?" dialogue of the whole film. Which isn't that difficult considering there isn't an awful lot of speech throughout. Without spoiling it too much, a particularly uncomfortable scene is a disturbing dinner date between Julian, his mother and his gorgeous, prostitute girlfriend Mai. The incestuous nature of the mother/son(s) relationship is hinted at early, but when the lady kingpin mentions the sizes of her boys' cocks, you can't help but flinch.

Visually, the comparisons to Drive are impossible to ignore. Neon is everywhere when we're on the streets, but most of that is down to the location. Bangkok is perfect at night with its brightly lit signs of pinks, reds and blues. The shots are characteristically Refn; he's an auteur for the eye, much like Kubrick was. Resemblances to The Shining and the claustrophobic hotel from Kubrick's horror classic surely influence Only God Forgives, to Refn's credit. The red hotel walls, the slow and winding tracking shots, the house of horrors nature combined with Julian's (presumable) hallucinations. There are some real "what the fuck just happened?" moments such as when Mai is pleasuring herself in front of Julian before his hallucination of Chang jumping out of the darkness and slicing his arm off.

Certain scenes are intercut to mess with the viewer's mind, like the former example, combined with Mai climaxing passionately, bringing together Refn's love of sex and violence. Instead of freaking out and questioning the whole thing too much, just go with it and enjoy the ride. Refn said of the film, "If Drive was really good cocaine, Only God Forgives is really good fucking acid."

Gosling was made for the role; with that face and screen presence, he needn't say a word. When he finally comes alive and the inevitable but sparing fight scenes take place, it looks fantastic, and the action is all real as he learned Muay Thai in a relentless pre-shoot course. Some signs of humanity shine through his amorality and it's a believable journey. Scott Thomas is so repulsive as the mother that she even put herself off the picture, remarking that the film "isn't really my thing." Vithaya Pansringarm is unbelievably good as Chang, a man who uses brutal force with almost ceremonial grace like that of a true warrior; he exerts a timeless sense of cool. Add to that the Lieutenant's love for karaoke and we have one of the most edgy and unpredictable characters in a neo-noir film of recent times.

Musically, the film is again a success. Cliff Martinez (composer of Solaris, Drive, and many more) returns to score duty, taking a more subtle approach this time round with a deeper, more tense, ambience. There are no songs as such, just the karaoke scenes and Martinez's finely-crafted minimalism, but it works perfectly. It's extremely difficult not to compare the film to Drive once you consider the soundtrack too, but Only God Forgives is the evil younger brother.

The ending let me down a little. I've seen the film twice now, and despite still being puzzled at some of the scenes, it's thoroughly enjoyable up until the bat-shit crazy finale (Refn stresses that the viewer is usually right in their own analyses). Avoid Google and make your own mind up, if you can. The acting is phenomenal, the violence is clever and effective, the music is brilliant and the film looks stunning, but I can’t shake the feeling the ending could have been more satisfying. This film certainly isn't for everyone, and most Gosling fans (film buffs or teenage girls) may be left shellshocked - but if you want a brave and challenging film, don't miss this.