Only God Forgives is a film that will captivate you in the same way that watching a car crash makes you not want to look away. It’s built on the same moral vortex that draws a crowd around a brutal fight breaking out in public. Every character in the film is an absolute monster, and we only ever see small glimpses of humanity. Director Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling have teamed up once again for their follow-up to the beloved Drive. However, those expecting more of the same will be filled with extreme disappointment. This film is much more similar to Refn’s earlier work, Valhalla Rising. Like that film there is very little dialogue in Only God Forgives. It’s ultra violent, and many of the themes are never exactly clear. The darkness of Thailand is back lit by haunting neon pinks and reds, but this is an ugly and violent tale where no one ever wins.
Julian (Gosling) is a fighting instructor/drug dealer in Bangkok who goes looking for the killer of his older brother Billy. Vithaya Pansringarm’s character, Chang, is a police officer with his own brand of justice. While Billy made a sixteen year old girl do unthinkable things, Chang (Pansringarm) gives the girl’s father the chance for redemption. Chang makes the most maniacal of villains seem pretty fucking tame, yet he’s almost set up as the protagonist in the film. He may even be acting as Refn’s vision for God. One minute you see him singing karaoke with the voice of an angel, and the next minute he’s throwing hot grease in a hitman’s face. Gosling has very little dialogue in the film, but his performance will come away underrated. He’s not playing the same strong silent character as he was in Drive. His performance is much more subtle. Instead, Julian is nothing but a doormat to his mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). He’s the most docile player in this game of life or death. He’s angered her for not avenging his brother’s murder, even though she’s fully aware of his action.
Speaking of Kristin Scott Thomas, she is phenomenal from the first second she enters the film. It’s hard to really give too many details because she maybe has ten minutes of screen time, but she clearly outshines the rest of the cast. You never quite know what her relationship with Julian and his older brother Billy was, but all signs point to incestuous. Julian obviously cannot stand up to his mother. She openly favors the older brother, and is very furious that Julian didn’t fight for his honor. At one point she even compares the size of her boys’ “manhood”.
One of the film’s biggest problems is the abstract dreamlike sequences where all I could gather is that Julian is having nightmarish visions. There is a lot of this going on in the first half of the film, and although it will make you question everything in a good or bad way, it’s a method that can easily take the audience out of the film altogether. Refn does a lot of shots of hallways where you know only danger lingers at the end. The term “Time to meet the devil” is definitely the running theme throughout the film. The score accompanying the film is really excellent, as has become a part of Refn’s repertoire.
It’s a strange film, but I have to say I liked it quite a bit. Winding Refn has a way of telling stories that don’t appeal to everyone, and this one leans heavily away from digestible. Not everyone will be able to withstand the unforgiving approach to hopelessness or the horrific graphic violence. I found myself unable to turn away.
The Good: The film is only 89 minutes. Refn is doing what he does best here. The score is fitting. The overall acting is good, but Kristin Scott Thomas should at least be in some awards conversations.
The Bad: If Drive was a fastball, Only God Forgives is a screwball. It may take multiple viewings, and not many will want to take this journey more than once.
The Ugly: The violence is way over the top, but it definitely gets the point across. The film is not for everyone, but goddamnit I wish it were.