Review: Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives raises the question of how much of a movie an audience can stand to watch when it loves and respects an artist. Had the film featured lesser-known actors and an obscure director, it might have been booed off the screen for its superfluous gore and barely-there story.

But, we not only give it a chance, we want and hope that it is brilliant. We love Drive and Nicolas Winding Refn, we love Ryan Gosling (yes, we do), and we love Kristen Scott Thomas. It’s hard not to try and enjoy Only God Forgives out of stubborn loyalty. However (or perhaps as a consequence—?), Refn makes it a hard pill to swallow.

The actual plot line is fairly straightforward. Billy (Tom Burke), the eldest son of a thoroughly unpleasant family, rapes and murders a young prostitute. The girl’s father exacts revenge on Billy by killing him after he is tacitly instructed to do so by Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), our murderous cop. Soon after, Billy’s mother, Crystal (Thomas), flies to Thailand from the United States and orders her younger son, Julian (Gosling), to avenge his brother’s death. What follows is an odd and bloody back and forth of an eye for an eye.

Only God Forgives is visually mesmerising and repulsive all at once.  It is a canvas of perfect frames, a superb soundtrack, and stoic characters amidst the vibrant setting of Thailand’s seedy underbelly. The stillness and stoniness of the characters reflects an across-the-board lack of goodness:

There’s Gosling’s Julian: described as “Hamlet-esque” by some reviewers, he is paralysed with fear of his own anger and evil, thus driven to impotency. There may not be a phenomenal amount of acting skill required, but Gosling works perfectly in the role, taking on a different version of his character from Drive.

Gosling’s character is caught between two super-villains, each the other’s opposite racially, gender-wise, and expressively. Thomas plays her role fantastically as chain-smoking Crystal who oozes rage and instability and recklessly orders the murders of others. Meanwhile, Pansringarm rarely speaks and barely flexes a facial muscle, save to smile sadistically before slicing off whatever appendage of his victims, whom he always deals with himself.

Given the potential for character development, a frustratingly small amount is carried out. Though plot, personality, and background are presented in the film through somewhat subtle methods, none of the characters is particularly expanded upon, and most relationships are hinted at but never unveiled. Crystal and Julian’s implied Oedipus complex and murdered father, Chang’s missing wife and Kung-Fu Master-level sword skills… 

Just as much of the film remains in shadow, so do all of the characters. This can be problematic given the extremes that we are asked to watch. An audience deserves some juicy plot or character dynamism if it sits through a man putting his hand inside his mother’s womb, or another driving an ice pick into someone’s ear.

Speaking of ice picks and open wombs, I can confidently say that I am usually very good with gore and violence. Only God Forgives, however, is the first movie in recent years to force my eyes shut. Nonetheless, one gets the impression that all the carnage and bloodshed isn’t just torture porn. There are many moments when the audience feels confused as to how we’re being prompted to react. Examples: include the fact that Pansringarm is able to pull out a sword from his back that is deliberately shown as blade-less; the way in which he finds an absurd amount and variety of blades in a private club room with which to torture his victim; Gosling’s casual “wanna fight?” followed by an unequivocal defeat to the soundtrack of an awesome fight scene… These moments, among others, coupled with the melodrama, painful suspense, and stomach-churning violence make many scenes almost comic. And yet, although the unabashed, full frontal violence brings Tarantino to mind, it is displayed with such rawness and seriousness, that you aren’t able to laugh off your repulsion.

In fact, you’re never really given a break from your ball-fisted anxiety. Even the scenes that feature sensuality and the promise of sex are never really sexy, because the dreaded anticipation of spilled blood remains heavy – like a layer of grime over each immaculately shot scene. The inability to really understand or predict the plot only heightens that fear. One feels as if anything could happen and it would still somehow fit in the story line, especially as the gap between reality and hallucination shrinks.

It is no surprise that critics are so divided about the movie, but I wouldn’t call it a “you hate it or love it” experience. Tim Grierson from Paste says, it might “almost work better as an art installation”; it’s possible to appreciate the film for the skill with which it’s made without necessarily being an out-and-out fan. Only God Forgives is beautifully shot, but gruesome without having comedy or deeper meaning as justification.

While I can’t say I particularly enjoyed watching it, I’m glad I did. It’s a movie to divide viewers and provoke reaction.  A visual feast for lovers of cinematography, but certainly not a film for the faint-hearted.