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Only God Forgives

2013 | 90 min | R | 1.85:1

Only God Forgives


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Theatrical release date

 19 July, 2013
 02 August, 2013

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Only God Forgives Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, July 18, 2013

After scoring an unlikely success with 2011’s “Drive,” director Nicolas Winding Refn and actor Ryan Gosling delve even deeper into the darkness of cinema with “Only God Forgives,” an eye-crossingly violent mood piece on the futility of revenge. Considering the relative mass appeal of their previous work, “Only God Forgives” is decidedly specialized filmmaking for adventurous audiences blessed with paint-drying patience. It’s monumentally rough stuff with a glacial pace, though its surreal execution grows quite interesting the longer Refn sticks to the unknown and the absurd, making the effort more performance art in design than aggressively genre-minded.

In Bangkok, drug-dealing lowlife Billy (Tom Burke) has raped and killed a 16-year-old prostitute, disgusting icy police captain Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who demands the father of the girl murder Billy as atonement. Instead of stopping the violence, Billy’s death spurs brother Julian (Ryan Gosling) into action, take time away from his underworld pursuits and kickboxing gym duties to plan out revenge. Flying into town is Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), Billy and Julian’s monster of a mother, who demands bloodshed for the loss of her favorite son. However, as plans are made to wipe out those responsible, Chang transforms himself into a vicious weapon, tracking Julian’s progress and defending himself from crude assassination attempts. Growing aware that this situation won’t be resolved peacefully, Julian seeks comfort in the company of Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), a young dancer who tempts the bruiser in his dreams, symbolizing the stability he will never possess.

“Only God Forgives” is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky (though music cues from David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” could easily match the footage), the famed helmer of “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain,” and a filmmaker once committed to making avant-garde pictures of strange beauty and disturbing horror. The influence on Refn is unmistakable, with “Only God Forgives” moving mysteriously from start to finish, bathed in style and subconscious submission, making a viewing less about decoding puzzles and more about survival, keeping up with the director’s impressive concentration on surrealism. It’s a movie of insanity, but executed in manner that lulls the viewer into the folds of madness, studying horrors and poses one beat at a time, supported by a sublime synth score from Cliff Martinez, which gifts the film a crisp pulse of tension when Refn would rather stare off into the distance, enjoying the protracted view.

Events take their time to unfold here, as much of “Only God Forgives” is left to linger, attempting to hypnotize the audience with nuclear shades of red and uncommon visions. The picture extends into dreamscape territory as well, with Julian imagining sexualized experiences with Mai that he doesn’t participate in, while Chang’s sword-wielding path of Thai justice is photographed with an eye toward abstraction, blurring the line of reality as the lead character comes to realize the emptiness of his soul. This is vivid, uncompromising work, more in tune with Refn’s bizarre LSD tab “Valhalla Rising” than the comforting L.A. noir of “Drive,” requiring colossal patience from the viewer to navigate the helmer’s interests, which also include Chang’s cleansing visits to a karaoke bar, where the stone-faced one pours his heart into song, emphasizing more of a Lynchian curve to the effort than a Jodorowsky thumbprint.

Performances aren’t the primary focus of the picture, with Gosling a vague figure here, not a character. With only a handful of lines to learn, the actor delivers a convincing spaced-out quality with mournful undertones, keeping Julian open for interpretation without the benefit of verbal communication. Pansringarm also keeps to a poker face, though Chang is more machine than man, prowling around the frame in a ceremonial fashion before he kills and maims in a most vivid manner. The red meat of “Only God Forgives” is found with Thomas, who plays an absolutely vicious woman. Dressed as a Real Housewife, Crystal is a manipulative, profane mother with incestual interests and a drug empire to run. Thomas is broad but necessarily so, adding flavor to a movie that’s more consumed with staring contests than traditional drama. She’s spunky and ghoulish and most welcome in a film that needs the toxicity.

I’m writing positive words about “Only God Forgives,” but don’t consider this a recommendation. To even approach the picture requires a special headspace that allows for directorial indulgence and unspeakable visions of violence (arms are chopped off, eyes are sliced, and bodies are pummeled), including one that finds Julian testing the comfort of the womb again 30+ years after his birth. It’s raw yet reserved, gorgeous to watch, and bizarre in a mostly satisfying manner. Don’t even consider a view unless you’re fully relaxed, prepared to allow Refn’s stylish, surreal vision wash over the screen. Any hesitation will immediately trigger disgust and disbelief.

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Burke, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

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