By Marty Mulrooney
Only God Forgives is a surreal nightmare of a film that defies genre, written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Drive). Ryan Gosling stars as Julian, an American expatriate – and man of few words – who runs a boxing club in Bangkok, Thailand. The legitimate business is actually a front for an expansive drug smuggling operation and Julian’s dysfunctional family are all criminals. When Julian’s brother Billy rapes and murders a 16-year-old prostitute, Thai Police Lieutenant Chang – aka the ‘Angel of Vengeance’ – takes matters into his own hands… with a samurai sword.
Only God Forgives is extremely disconcerting from the outset. Julian (Gosling) hardly speaks, an unreadable, unsettling man who seems to fear the power of his own fists. He oversees the fights at his boxing club with an unfocused yet piercing gaze and firmly set jaw. Progressing through his life like it’s a waking dream, he is prone to slipping into nightmare scenes so vivid and real that reality becomes difficult to grasp.
Nicolas Winding Refn compounds this confusion further by continually blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. It’s never quite clear what is real, what is imagined, and what is simply obscured through the looking-glass of Julian’s deeply disturbed mind. Scenes are soaked in blood-red light and drenched in shadow. The opening and closing titles are shown in Thai, and dialogue is kept to an absolute bare minimum (with much of it subtitled). Instead, the talking is done via a generous dose of mise-en-scène, sudden bursts of extreme violence, and slow scenes of death.
Another example of the film’s smouldering dreamlike quality is the character of Lieutenant Chang (played with palpable menace by Vithaya Pansringarm), a policeman who seems to operate outside the law, serving up ‘justice’ with a samurai sword that appears out of nowhere from behind his back. If this man is to be considered the ‘God’ of the title, then he is truly vengeful. ‘The Angel of Death’ wanders through the film much like Julian, separate and detached from the world around him. Chang is all-powerful, unwavering in his beliefs and terrifying, even when singing with almost religious reverence at a karaoke bar to a glassy-eyed audience.
It would be easy to make the claim that Only God Forgives lacks a real story, but that’s not true at all. Everything is put right in front of the viewer, but the film is presented and delivered in a highly unconventional manner. Attention is required. The plot is drip-fed between the lines of what little dialogue there is, and backed up by actions rather than words. Kristin Scott Thomas explodes onto the screen in a scene-stealing performance as Crystal, Julian’s fearsome mother, who is it strongly hinted has had an unhealthy, borderline incestuous relationship with her sons in the past. Crystal is the key to unlocking the entire film – a foul-mouthed, hateful catalyst bitch, she turns up and demands that Billy’s killer has his head brought to her ‘”on a fucking platter.”
A dinner scene between Julian, his prostitute girlfriend Mai and Crystal is one of the most uncomfortable and unsettling moments in a film crammed full of them. Crystal berates Julian for being jealous and never living up to his older brother (who apparently had “a bigger cock”), and everything starts to click into place. Ryan Gosling isn’t phoning in his performance as Julian – he’s portraying a good man who has been bent and moulded into a dangerous criminal, a man who won’t allow himself to touch anyone for fear of what he might do. The inevitable confrontation between Julian and Chang is beautifully choreographed and not what audiences will expect at all.
Only God Forgives is often far too violent (one scene in particular pushes the boundaries of taste), frequently overblown with its own sense of ‘depth’ and relentlessly beautiful. The soundtrack by Cliff Martinez compliments the horrific gorgeousness of the film to perfection – the song ‘You’re My Dream’ by Thai band PROUD couldn’t have been better chosen. Despite being far more ‘arty’ than Drive (and considerably more violent, arguably to the point of gratuitousness), it fails to be the better film simply because it lingers uncomfortably in the mind rather than being remembered with a nostalgic sense of fondness.
Still, love or hate this film, you have to admire Nicolas Winding Refn. After Drive, he could have tackled a much larger mainstream project. Instead, he spent less than $5 million on fully realising a slow-burning and flawed Bangkok nightmare come to life in all its invasive, disturbing glory. A display of powerful sensory filmmaking that has divided audiences and critics alike (it took me a full week after viewing to make up my own mind on whether I actually liked it or not – I’m still uncertain), Only God Forgives is no doubt destined for cult classic status.
7 OUT OF 10