I’ve got to preface this review with indelible fact that Nicholas Winding Refn’s previous collaboration with Ryan Gosling, Drive, continues to be one of my favorite films of all time. That being said, Only God Forgives is probably the single biggest letdown I’ve encountered this year.
I get it. Refn isn’t an easily accessible director. He blends a distinct, hyper-visual and ultra-violent direction with a pounding score that blends beautifully into the narrative. Only God Forgives is no different, except that Refn sort of forgot to include that whole cohesive plot thing… oops.
We’re introduced to Julian (Ryan Gosling), an American running a Bangkok muay thai gym that operates as a front for a massive drug smuggling operation. This individual seemed like a welcome addition to the growing list of silent types that Gosling has come to portray perfectly in his past few silver screen outings, but, as I quickly came to find out, it wouldn’t last. Following his brother Billy’s rape and murder of an underage prostitute, Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows the girl’s father to beat Billy to death, enacting a string of retaliation from Julian’s family, led by his ruthless mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas).
I’ve got to give it to Refn – the visuals are stunning. The warm hues and neon lights paint Bangkok as an artificial city full of violence and passion, and the muay thai beatdown between Julian and Chang was breathtaking, but that’s where my adoration for the film ends. The characters are absurdly pointed, most notably Lt. Chang and Crystal. Lt. Chang stands as the pure embodiment of evil in the vein of Death from The Seventh Seal and Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, but unlike Death or Chigurh, Chang has no mythos to back his cruel intentions. He might represent a vengeful God of Old Testament proportions, but why should we care? He’s a crooked Bangkok cop who enjoys singing karaoke for uncomfortable lengths of time (seriously, that’s about half of his screen time). Likewise, Crystal is a cunning and murderous mob boss who is insanely sexual and ups the depravity of the already obscene film. But her ridiculous dinner scene with Julian and his prostitute girlfriend, Mai (Rhatha Phongam), coupled with an overstated Oedipal relationship, left me completely put off by her character.
Only God Forgives strays into that avant-garde style of film making that I have a contempt for. The “art” of the film – its style, direction, mood, etc. – is put on a pedestal and praised above all else, abandoning any semblance of a plot, understandable story, and entertainment. Only God Forgives desperately wants to establish itself as a great work of indie expression, and Refn hits you over the head with that notion every time he gets the chance. It gets pretty pretentious pretty quickly.
That all being said, if you’re into really abstract symbolism and ultra-formalistic films, then it would be worth seeking out Only God Forgives. From my point of view, though, it’s a big waste of time. Stick to Nicolas Winding Refn’s other works that share similar qualities but actually contain worthy plots and complex, explorable characters (a.k.a. Drive). Refn is still a bankable indie director with loads of potential, but you’d be best served to skip over this underwhelming story of revenge, redemption, and a cringe-inducing mother/son relationship.
1-1/2 out of 5 Stars