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.
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 (Drive, Bronson), 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 (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 Patient, Gosford 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.)
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.
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.