‘Only God Forgives’ Review

Published 2 years ago by , Updated November 15th, 2014 at 12:19 am,

Only God Forgives Reviews starring Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas 2013 Only God Forgives Review

Only God Forgives is only going to be (remotely) pleasurable to those who are curious fans of the director’s work, or those who indulge in arthouse films.

Only God Forgives transports us into the lavishly gruesome Thailand underworld, for a tale of death, dishonor, duty and justice. Youngest in his crime family, Julian (Ryan Gosling) finds his usual routine of sex, drugs and violence interrupted by the death of his brother, Billy (Tom Burke), a vicious psychopath. However, revenge  takes a sharp twist when Julian discovers that Billy’s execution was orchestrated by the infamously righteous lawman known as Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Julian knows to steer clear of the cop’s attention, but his ruthless crime boss mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), has no such qualms.

Before long, Crystal’s machinations have started a series of events that ripple throughout the underworld, and set Chang on a unalterable course of retribution that not even God himself could stand in the way of.

The above synopsis of Only God Forgives may sound simple enough, but the truth is that it is only discernible from external reflection; you’d be lucky to get that much information pieced together while watching the film for the first time. Audiences who loved Drive and are hoping to see yet another stylistically-rich bending of the crime genre are going to be disappointed that Refn’s new film fails in almost every way that Drive succeeded – except in the area of rich visuals. Those who hated Drive are either going to feel even more put-off – or maybe just vindicated – by how obtuse and self-involved a film Refn has created here. 

Vithaya Pansringarm in Only God Forgives1 Only God Forgives Review

Vithaya Pansringarm in ‘Only God Forgives’

The filmmaker’s imagination is as gruesome as ever, but his eye for visual composition and mis-en-scene is also as keen as ever, and cinematographer Larry Smith (Bronson) makes Thailand look equal parts ethereal and lavishly hellish at the same time. But as gorgeous as the film’s world and imagery look, Refn’s frustratingly slow pacing and wildly uneven tone are very off-putting; this film is throttled by the eccentricities of its creator. There are probably dozens of films that Refn and Co. are drawing inspiration from, but the references and/or homages are so esoteric it’s hard to estimate the number of people who would actually get them.

Like in Drive, dialogue is sparse, and combined with some incredibly jarring editing by Refn’s longtime collaborator Matthew Newman (DriveBronson), it’s hard to even follow the logic of the film or understand much of the characterization. The tone is a constant mismatch of high-brow film art and low-brow grindhouse-style violence that never  coalesces into a discernible point. It’s everything arthouse haters mean when they talk about films that are “weird for the sake of being weird.”

Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives1 Only God Forgives Review

Ryan Gosling in ‘Only God Forgives’

Ryan Gosling (seemingly the headliner) is just there, staring, most of the time; more blank slate than subtle expressionist. Vithaya Pansringarm is asked to do so many outlandishly violent (and weird) things that it takes awhile to even identify that he’s indeed on the side of law and order (Thai justice is very different, if this movie is any indication).

Really, the only heartbeat that the film gets (in between its weird and wacky meditative pauses) is that provided by Kristin Scott Thomas (The English PatientGosford Park) who is all but unrecognizable as Crystal, one of the most hardcore crime boss / dragon-lady mothers this side of Olivia Soprano. Thomas’ every scene is drenched in so much grime and bile (most of it spilling from her lips in jaw-dropping lines of dialogue) that it’s hard to know whether to be horrified or impressed that an actress of her caliber could play trashy evil so damn well. (A dinner scene between Thomas, Gosling, and Thai actress/pop star Yayaying Rhatha Phongam is one of the film’s only highlights.)

Kristin Scott Thomas in Only God Forgives Only God Forgives Review

Kristin Scott Thomas in ‘Only God Forgives’

The script was also written by Refn, so there is little help on the narrative front to explain the intended point of it all. There is very little action (or even movement, for that matter); a few standout sequences pass without much emotional or thematic impact, and the film is otherwise punctuated with scenes of brutal torture that is slowly and methodically unfolded in front of the viewer’s eyes. For those not aware that  they were in for a bit of torture-porn cinema: you’ve been warned.

I once had a teacher who said that if nothing else, a film had a duty to at least entertain its viewer and help that viewer delight in the watching. Only God Forgives fails in that task – and I say this as a big fan of the filmmaker’s prior work (Drive in particular). Perhaps Refn and Gosling have reached that critical juncture – the Depp/Burton point – where working together is more stifling than it is mutually beneficial; or maybe Refn just had his usual collection of fetishes and intrigues in mind and just wasn’t as adept at translating them through implication and symbolism like he did with Drive. Whatever the case may be, Only God Forgives is only going to be (remotely) pleasurable to those who are curious fans of the director’s work, or those who indulge in arthouse films where style is exponentially higher than substance. Otherwise, this is not going to be the fight that Ryan Gosling fans were hoping to see.

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Only God Forgives is 90 minutes long and is Rated R for strong bloody violence including grisly images, sexual content and language.

The movie is now in limited theatrical release. It is also available on Video On Demand services (check your local provider) or on iTunes.

Our Rating:

1.5 out of 5
(Poor, A Few Good Parts)

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  1. I don’t understand the hate this film is getting – I enjoyed it. I think the people who are disliking this film didn’t understand it. It does need some thinking what the characters truly mean.

    • “I think the people who are disliking this film didn’t understand it”…. that statement really annoys me. I understood the themes and subtext just fine thank you. In fact, there are some pretty intelligent readings of the movie on this thread. While I appreciate this films look and overall mood there’s no getting around the film’s flaws (though I’m happy some people enjoyed it!). I’m not comprehending what’s supposedly difficult to understand here… Only God Forgives has all the subtlety of a brick to the face in regard to what it tries (and fails) to say. There is a good film in here somewhere but glacial pacing, pantomime performances and shock for sake of shock do not make for a great cinema experience.

      That said…… as boring as I found it,as frustrating as it is and despite my immediate visceral reaction to it… It’s stayed with me and I want to see it again.

      I feel like I’m arguing with my own opinion here.

      I hate this movie SO MUCH.

      I’ll see it again tomorrow

      • Nice troll, UnknownUniverse. There aren’t even characters in this film. There are themes wrapped up in flesh form, with literally nothing to say. This is the ultimate case of life as a game: The characters have the depth of pieces on a chessboard. Each is moved to the whim of Refn and whatever Greek myth/Shakespearean tragedy/psychological archetype he sets them. I still liked the film, but a twelve year old who has been instructed to write a tragedy and is given Hamlet and the story of Oedipus to read could’ve knocked the “story” out in a half hour. As Nat King Cole sang (and I couldn’t sum it up better myself) “Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa? Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art?”

      • You know what I hate? When people say “I know there’s a good film in here somewhere” what the hell does that even mean? Do you think the person responsible for “Drive” really made “mistakes” in pacing, performances and “shock for the sake of shock?” Do watch the film again, please.

  2. Drive was lightning caught in a bottle. Everything came together against all odds to create an absolutely amazing film. Every other movie by Refn that I saw was absolutely terrible (Valhalla Rising being the worst). Sounds like he failed again, unsurprisingly.

    I haven’t seen Bronson, though, so he might actually have made two good movies instead of just one.

    • Valhalla Rising was actually pretty good in my opinion. Drive was great though.

      • +1.

        I would even call Valhalla Rising excellent. But yeah, Drive was terrific.

    • See Bronson. It’s got some of Refn’s unique visual stuff going on but it’s interesting and not off-putting – and the film is carried by Tom Hardy’s outstanding performance.

    • This is the most useless comment I’ve ever seen. Stick to James Cameron movies.

  3. I loved the singing scenes with the Thai cop avenger. Brilliant, reminded me of Dean in Lynch’s “Blue Velvet’. The fact that the cop viewing audience was statuesque only heightened the weirdness.
    I could easily watch this again. Odd, eerie and dreamlike.

  4. it feels kind of strange but I… really like this movie. While watching it I felt majority of the shots were a real drag and empty, however after finishing the movie and looking back at the movie as a whole it was actually really interesting to me. I started to see how it was very unique and really different then a lot of films and movies that I have seen. It does feel very unique and different. Before I watched it I was in denial mode, I was really biased that there was no way refn and gosling can make a movie that terrible, so I am not sure if that is still a big cloud hanging over my feelings toward this movie… however watching this movie, I felt like a troll just being very close minded criticizing how much of a drag majority of the scenes were, at the 3/4th of the movie I started to really let go and open my mind. I think for the people that have not watched it, expect majority of the scenes to drag and don’t expect a lot of action or DRIVE 2.

  5. Superbly written review, Kofi. One of your best.
    I did love Drive but I will be steering clear of this.

    I had no intention of seeing it and you confirmed
    every suspicion I had developed from what I read.

  6. Poor review. Show’s he’s not a real ‘critic’. A real critic would have understood the underlying subtexts the movie was trying to portray but instead this reviewer simply went in like a normal audience member did. *sigh* Screen rant has written some good reviews, most pretentious, but some are just plain bad.

    • That’s ironic considering most of your comment makes little to no sense. I recommend you read it back to yourself slowly.

    • Well, he’s getting paid to write reviews, so that makes him “real”. Anyway, besides the fact that he is a professional, what differentiates a real critic from a normal audience member? This is the most unpretentious site i read, i can’t be bothered with sites that blow smoke up my *** and praise films like Only God Forgives just because they think they should, or because it looks nice.

      I’ve said it already, but there are no underlying subtexts to this film. It’s not subtle or intelligent, it’s all there right in front of you, there is no need to think really deeply about these hidden themes that people keep talking about, they’re obvious to anyone who’s ever seen another film or read a book. People are really patting themselves on the back for seeing what’s right in front of them with this film, and then looking down their noses at people who they think didn’t “get it”. It’s not that they didn’t get it, it’s that they don’t appreciate empty spectacle, please forgive them for demanding more than just a pretty picture. It doesn’t make you intelligent any more than being able to dress yourself in the morning makes you intelligent.

      And again, i liked the film well enough but it’s no masterpiece. If you’re looking for depth you may as well take a submarine into a swimming pool, because you’d find about as much depth there as there is in this film.

  7. This film is stylistically slick but thats about all is has going for it, its pretentious garbage made by a guy that couldn’t care less about the audience but rather enjoys feeding his own ego with utter nonsense since he got such rave reviews for DRIVE.
    I now fully understand why so many people walked out of the screening at Cannes.

  8. This isn’t even available in any theatres where I live. I guess I’ll check it out in a year or so.

  9. I’m hooked. His films leave me with questions.

    I think Gosling fans will be disappointed .. I agree. It’s no Beyond the Pines .. but again it’s Nicholas’s movie. Not Gosling’s.

    Refn does a great job keeping an ugly place ugly. It almost seems like he’s challenged with presenting the horror in a way that horrifies as he wants it too .. and doesn’t want it to entertain.

  10. Loved Bronson, Drive, and Only God Forgives. For the same reason I love classic stuff like the Dollars Trilogy. Very visual, slower pacing (allowing time to really savor the details). I’d hate for all movies to be like these films, but they are a nice change of pace, and have an undeniable flavor. (Much preferred something like this film over the proposed “Drive 2″)

  11. I disagree with claiming the film has no subtext. What I took away from it, to put it simply, is it presents the difference between punishment and revenge. Chang is molded to appear godlike in the film, punishing sins. He is a man seperated from emotion. Julian and his actions, on the other hand, are driven by his strong emotions towards his mother. He is her tool, for her revenge, but he chooses to abid by a type of God’s law, to play ball so to speak, regardless of the outcome. OGF is more of an ultra-violent fairy tale than anything else, but in the end, I was satisfied.

  12. Peter Bradshaw gave it 5 stars in The Guardian. He loves it…as do I.

  13. I’ve taken psychology courses. Nicholas Winding Refn is a sociopath. I’m not going to comment on my personal opinion of this movie or any other of his I’ve seen, which is a few. I’m just noticing a pattern. The level of violence and the motivation for most of it, and I don’t just mean this one movie, all point to seriously sadistic tendencies.

  14. Percy Jackson gets 2 stars and this gets 1.5? Are you kidding me?
    That alone speaks volumes.

    I absolutely loved this film, really glad I decided to ignore all the spiteful reviews and watch it.


    For perspective.

  16. Movies that are based in Thailand are always hated-on by critics and American movie buffs because people who haven’t been to Thailand don’t relate to them or understand them. Thailand is unlike any other country. It’s like stepping into another dimension, and so the only people who relate, appreciate it, or “get it” are those who have been to that dimension.

  17. epic fail review
    go back and watch action boom boom movies

    this movie is very good

  18. Have a read of my review of Only God Forgives -http://teddyloxley.wordpress.com

  19. The irony here is that this review is exactly what Refn was expecting. I enjoyed this movie because I wasn’t expecting Drive 2. After Drive’s commercial success and misinterpretation you knew Refn was going to retaliate by not giving critics something so easy to love, and they/you responded predictably. Watch it again, this time without looking at your phone.

  20. Refn is a genius. his previous work is jaw droppingly brutal and beautiful at the same time. however this movie is his worst. its just plain weird. i am familiar with his style, from the sparse dialogue to the long takes of someone not doing anything, but this still caught me off guard by how slow pacing and boring this movie was. you might enjoy it if you absolutely love refns style but it just didnt work for me.