A film review by Craig J. Koban August 2, 2013 

RANK: #18


2013, R,  86 mins.


Ryan Gosling as Julian  /  Kristin Scott Thomas as Crystal /  Gordon Brown as Gordon  /  Tom Burke as Billy  /  Vithaya Pansringarm as Chang  Byron Gibson as Byron  /  Sahajak Boonthanakit as Pol Col. KIM

Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

I screened ONLY GOD FORGIVES twice in a span of 48 hours and parts of me are still trying to dissect through all of its convoluted layers.  This is the new film from Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn, who previously made the masterful DRIVE and reteams with that film’s co-star Ryan Gosling.  Superficially, ONLY GOD FORGIVES is a revenge fuelled western, only set in modern day Bangkok.  Yet, the film never prescribes to any normal sense of narrative momentum or meaningful character development.  A plot and the personas that populate it are almost superfluous entities here; ONLY GOD FORGIVES is more of an abstract mood and style piece for Refn, a film that basks in the formal exactitude of a Stanley Kubrick, the befuddling and alluring oddness of a David Lynch, and the explosive bursts of violence akin to a Quentin Tarantino flick.  

Maybe it's no wonder that ONLY GOD FORGIVES deeply polarized so many viewers and critics when it played at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year (it was even nominated for the Palme d'Or to much criticism).  There were some reported walkouts, and when that didn’t occur there were odd mixtures of giddy cheers and disapproving jeers.  I can perhaps see where the more hostile critics are coming from; ONLY GOD FORGIVES has minimal dialogue, minimal drama, contains unspeakable acts of brutality throughout, and leaves viewers feeling fairly empty in its aftermath.  Yet, lambasting Refn’s film as a pure exercise in style is kind of redundant.  The film exists solely as an avant-garde exercise in relaying scene after scene of hauntingly evocative beauty and – yes, at times – savage barbarism.  I can’t say that I altogether liked the experience of sitting through ONLY GOD FORGIVES, but I must acknowledge the unmistakable fact that it’s made with an unrelentingly confident and assured hand of a filmmaker that knows how to craft a nightmarishly hypnotic spell over viewers.  

There is a story here, albeit one told in broad and simple strokes.  Gosling plays Julian, a rather moody and stoic American fugitive that lives in Bangkok and runs a boxing club that he uses as a front for his drug smuggling/dealing business.  His older brother Billy (Tom Burke) – in a drunken fit of anger – brutally kills and rapes a very young Thai prostitute, but eventually surrenders himself to the city’s police force.  Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) – known as the “Angel of Death” – investigates the scene of the crime before relaying what has happened to the 16-year-old’s father, Choi Yan Lee.  Later on, Chang does allow Choi to brutally beat Billy to death for his hellish actions, but then – rather sadistically in his own right – Chang dispenses his own sense of justice on Choi by cutting off his arms with his short samurai sword for allowing his under-aged daughter to become entrapped in such a seedy and deplorable world of prostitution.  



All of this, of course, spurs Julian into action to plot his own vicious revenge plot on Chang.  While he’s doing this his mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in town, and upon learning of her son’s brutal demise demands that her remaining son seek retribution via any means necessary.  Plans begin to form to achieve just that, but Chang emerges as a deceptively hard-to-kill adversary.  After multiple attempts on Chang’s life are unsuccessful – much to Crystal’s venomous chagrin – Julian tries to escape into the arms of Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), a young and beautiful dancer that he hopes will serve as a conduit of emotional escape from the monstrous demands of his mother and his larger need to seek vengeance on his fallen sibling.  Alas, achieving any semblance of normalcy in his life becomes more difficult by the minute for Julian, who seems to be on an unavoidable collision course with Chang. 

For a film with only sparse character dynamics, ONLY GOD FORGIVES does have some thanklessly strong and memorable performances in it.  Kristin Scott Thomas - with her bleach blonde hair, caked-on makeup, and icy disposition – gives a rancorous tour-de-force performance as one of the most vile, potty-mouthed, ill-tempered, animalistic, and hostile mother figures in recent movie history.  Gosling, by direct comparison, may utter less lines in the film than just about any other main or side character, but he still brings a level of raw, internalized, and steely-eyed unpredictability to the role that helps counterbalance how non-verbal it is.  Then there is Vithaya Pansringarm as Chang, who evokes a sadistic killer of almost serene stillness and unsettling calm, made all the more of an eerie and disturbing by his penchant for retreating to pubs after he slaughters his victims to sing melancholic karaoke tunes to glazed onlookers. 

Considering the film’s litany of in-your-face savagery on display (limbs are hacked off, torsos are eviscerated, and eyeballs are literally sawed in half in tight close-up) ONLY GOD FORGIVES is paradoxically one of the most exquisite, sumptuous, and beautifully shot films of the year.  Cinematographer Larry Smith and Refn combine to paint the screen with vibrant hues of red and yellow mixed with ominous shadow play, which helps heighten and embellish the film’s undercurrent of violence and merciless depravity.  The film also mixes reality with fantasy, which dives in and out of the subconscious minds of its characters, further creating a sense of unease in viewers that are vicariously living through the ominous dreamscapes of these doomed souls.  All of this - amalgamated with the haunting and frequently disturbing musical score by Cliff Martinez - serves to frame the conceptual horror within the picture, not to mention that it comments on the emotional emptiness and unethical chaos that permeates the story.

ONLY GOD FORGIVES certainly lacks, as stated, a storyline with preordained beats and movements, and most of the characters here are merely opaque entities.  Refn’s work also requires the most Herculean levels of patience in viewers, as his fetishistic level of controlled formalism that he executes in nearly every single painterly shot in the film may have some lay viewers checking for their watches rather frequently.  Yet, it’s the film’s ethereal sense of beguiling and distressing atmosphere that makes it such of strangely powerful and suspenseful work.  Ultimately, ONLY GOD FORGIVES is really a tone poem on the nature of revenge and the absolute pointlessness of seeking it.  The film crafts, as so few others do, a twisted, trippy, and spellbinding portrait of deeply driven and violent people who exist within a tight bubble of corruption.  Whether Julian defeats Chang or vice-versa by the end of the film is almost meaningless here; what does matter is how ONLY GOD FORGIVES makes viewers feel about this perverted world.  

This is a film of so many odd contradictions, even after two separate viewings.  It’s squeamishly gory and hideous at times, yet absolutely gorgeous to look at.  It lacks a dramatic heartbeat, yet tells a heartbreaking and tragic story of retribution gone wrong.  The characters are one-note, yet endlessly compelling for their self-serving eccentricities.  The film is bathed in pure cinematic style, but not to the point where its eye candy suffocates and subverts its themes.  ONLY GOD FORGIVES might just be a masterpiece…at the very least a flawed one.  It won’t leave me anytime soon and contains powerful imagery that will stay with me forever.  A dreadful and offensive film, though, worthy of Cannes walkouts…it is not. 

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