Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Tom Burke
Release date: July 19th, 2013
Distributors: RADiUS-TWC, Lionsgate, Le Pacte, Wild Side Films
Countries: Denmark, Thailand, France, USA
Running time: 90 minutes
Best part: Kristin Scott Thomas.
Worst part: The wafer-thin story.
You can always tell the quality of a movie by the reaction it receives at the Cannes Film Festival. Treated to simultaneous cheers and boos during its world premiere, Only God Forgives is one of many movies to be treated to the festival-related wave of critics and film aficionados alike. Having seen the mixed to negative reviews since then, and now the movie, I can only summate that the aforementioned polarised crowd was simply trying to warn everyone. The movie reaches for success, but can’t overcome its own overblown hubris.
Only God Forgives is, undoubtedly, the most ambitious yet discomforting movie I’ve seen so far this year (though that’s not saying much). A mix of different styles and messages ties this movie into a knot that can’t be undone. Set in Bangkok, the story, such as it is, follows Julian (Ryan Gosling). His business, a massive drug smuggling operation hidden by a Muay Thai boxing club, is about to take a serious blow (no pun intended). Julian’s brother and business partner Billy (Tom Burke) goes out one night, and ends up raping and killing a 16 year old prostitute. Billy’s death, at the hands of the prostitute’s father and Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), is about to make Julian’s life a living hell. Julian and Billy’s abrasive mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) travels to Bangkok to seek vengeance for her eldest son’s death. Believing Julian to be unworthy of avenging Billy’s death, Crystal sends goons after everyone who may be involved in this horrific crime. Julian and his prostitute-girlfriend Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) will soon be tested by Bangkok’s seedy underbelly.
Fittingly, Julian, Crystal, and Lt. Chang, from Billy’s murder onward, go on an explorative journey of heartache, lust, redemption, and philosophical awakenings. At least that’s what I deciphered from this solemn and relentlessly pulsating crime thriller. Suffering a serious bout of pretentiousness, Only God Forgives lumbers around like a wounded beast. Its ‘style over substance’ execution is unfortunate given the cast and writer/director at the helm of the movie’s intriguing premise. Nicolas Winding Refn (Primer, Bronson) is, normally, a focused and affirming crime-drama filmmaker. His hyper-violence-based style has, over time, transformed some of his critically-praised dramas into modern cult classics. This follow-up to Refn’s surprise hit Drive, unfortunately, lacks the convincing character-based drama and thematic depth of the aforementioned 2011 movie. Only God Forgives is a skin-deep look at the depraved nature of man and the violent sides of two opposing cultures. These aspects are appealing and potent when they are brought up, rather obviously, throughout the narrative. However, Refn looks too deeply in places he shouldn’t. In too many scenes, we are treated to the characters thinking and talking about doing something instead of actually doing it. Refn’s plodding direction, featuring many unending shots of blank-faced characters looking off into the distance, makes his 90-minute ode to Alejandro Jodorowsky and Asian crime-action cinema feel like an eternity.
I thoroughly enjoyed 49% of this oppressive drama-thriller, but found the other 51% insultingly abhorrent. This surreal movie may be an experiment, but it proves that a commendable final product is far more interesting than watching someone meticulously undertaking an analysis. It’s difficult to put my finger on this movie’s biggest flaw, because it feels like a half-completed production. It seemed like there was a lot more Refn could and should of expressed, but was restrained by everything around him. Here, his ambitiousness and self-indulgence have helped churn out a sprawling mass of visually stimulating flourishes and influences. This strange concoction of The Killer and Blue Velvet contains many familiar intricacies placed together in an intriguing way. This slow, shallow visual feast is also a thorough examination of film noir and foreign cinema’s importance. Despite the surface-level writing and direction, Only God Forgives is strengthened by its hyper-kinetic visual style. Refn’s pulpy, visceral, and slick visuals bolster the movie’s discussion of masculinity, honour, and family ties. For those who love gore, sweat, and the colour red, Only God Forgives is the movie for you! Despite the repetitiveness of each vital scene, Larry Smith’s cinematography is simply breathtaking. The hallway shots, for example, emphasise Refn’s eye for intricate imagery/settings. The lack of dialogue and intelligence may grate on many people’s nerves. However, having the over-cooked dialogue drowned out by Cliff Martinez’ thundering score is a major positive.
“You can’t see what is good for you. So it’s better you don’t see.” (Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), Only God Forgives).
This hyper-violent and lurid mishmash of Stanley Kubrick, Wong Kar Wai, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese’s directorial ticks is, thankfully, aided by the dynamic cast. Here, Gosling continues his run of stoic and scummy anti-heroes after Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines. Known for his enviable physique and bug-eyed performances, Gosling is a naturally charismatic screen presence. Unfortunately, his character’s quiet reserve and expressionless veneer become increasingly frustrating. Unlike Gosling’s damaged character from Drive, Julian has little reason to be this submissive, peculiar, and antisocial. Unfortunately, Gosling’s Steve McQueen-esque nature has become a trait he should stray from to achieve a greater level of acclaim. Thomas is scarily affecting as Julian and Billy’s greasy, white trash mother. Transforming herself, Thomas brings vitality and dimension to this otherwise irritating figure. Watching Julian and Mai intently, Crystal is a foul-mouthed and incestuous force of nature. Constantly reminding Julian of how Billy was the ‘bigger’ man of the two, her harsh personality and cougar-like behaviour push everyone around her to breaking point. Thai actor Pansringarm delivers an awe-inspiring performance as the vile yet well-meaning Chang. As a fan of karaoke and severing limbs (for some reason), Chang’s enrapturing characteristics define him as the ‘Angel of Vengeance’.
With the sex appeal of a dirty Thai hooker and subtlety of a Heineken commercial, Only God Forgives has none of the smoothness, scintillating story/character aspects, or emotional impact of similar Refn-directed crime-thrillers. This movie, about mothers, brothers, gods, and monsters, has some haunting and perplexingly beautiful images and concepts. However, to paraphrase every motherly figure in existence: if you have nothing interesting or original to say, say nothing at all.
Verdict: A confused, frustrating yet gorgeous crime-thriller.