I really liked Only God Forgives. There…I said it. One of the most critically drubbed films of 2013, the latest collaboration between director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling is easily one of the more ambitious, visceral pictures of the year. It’s also a completely divisive film that leaves the audience with no middle ground—you’re either going to love it or you are going to completely despise it. Most will probably despise it.
Only God Forgives tells the story of three personalities set on a collision course with each other in the city of Bangkok. There’s Julian (Ryan Gosling), the tempestuous gangster of few words who runs a drug smuggling operation out of a Thai kickboxing club; there’s his foul-mouthed, psychopathic mother (Kristin Scott Thomas); and there’s an imperious lawman who may or may not be God (Vithaya Pansringarm).
The film begins with Julian’s brother raping and killing a teenage girl. Retired police officer Chang is called in by the authorities when the man is found in the room where the crime was committed, covered in blood, and sitting across from the corpse of his victim. Chang calls for the girl’s father, shows the man what happened, and tells him to make things right; he promptly leaves the two alone in the room, but not before locking the door behind him. The grieving father bludgeons the murderer to death.
Chang’s methods are harsh—he clearly has no use for high-minded concepts such as due process—but a sense of justice drives him. After the deed is done, Chang drags the man to the outskirts of the city and pulls a sword on him. He lops the man’s right arm off, not for avenging his child’s death, but to remind him to protect his remaining three daughters. That’s probably going too far.
We’re led to the conclusion that Julian likely suffers from the same sick, violent impulses as his brother. He, on the other hand, attempts to suppress those impulses. In one early scene, we see Julian pay a prostitute to pleasure herself in front of him; however, he has her bind him to a chair before doing so, as if he is afraid of what he might do if given free reign. Upon discovering the circumstances of his brother’s death, he takes no action, believing Chang’s actions to be just.
However, Julian’s psychopathic mother soon arrives to collect the body of her son and to extract vengeance from the man who killed him. When told that her son murdered a teenager, she blithely replies, “I’m sure he had his reasons.” She coerces Julian into seeking revenge, placing the tormented drug trafficker and the seemingly invincible cop on a collision course with each other.
The rest of the film is a deliberately paced, bloody, downbeat neo-noir. Ryan Gosling exercises the stoic Alain Delon impression he cultivated in Drive while Kristin Scott Thomas chews the scenery as a criminal matriarch in the vein of Ma Barker. Meanwhile Vathya Pansingram steals the movie with an intensely quiet performance reminiscent of Robert Patrick’s turn as the T-1000 in Terminator 2.
Like with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising and Drive, the screenplay for Only God Forgives is an exercise in minimalism. Smoldering glares from the actors, vivid cinematography, and a pulsating electronic soundtrack from the brilliant Cliff Martinez take the place of dialogue. The story itself is straightforward enough—Only God Forgives is a revenge flick in the vein of the dozens of crime noirs that came before it. Harsh, damaged characters stalk each other through a gorgeously lit purgatory of deep reds, warm golds, and neon blues. And that’s about it.
As with his other work, the director doesn’t skimp on violence. The characters commit all manner of atrocities against each other, and every act of sadism is beautifully captured. There isn’t anyone to root for here—hell, there isn’t anyone to relate to here—and yet I found it impossible to take my eyes away from the screen. Only God Forgives is a gorgeous meditation on sin and redemption. However, it’s also easy to see people being turned away by the movie’s slow pace, labored symbolism, and sheer nastiness.
Likely anticipating the waves of negativity that would wash over this film, Nicolas Winding Refn had this to say about Only God Forgives: “This…is exciting because everything around me is uncertain and we must not forget that the second enemy of creativity, after having ‘good taste,’ is being safe.” I believe the director accurately summarized his own film here. Only God Forgives is decidedly not an exercise in good taste. It is an enthusiastic, flamboyant exercise in trash filmmaking. Only God Forgives is a movie so relentless, so exploitative and grotesque, and yet so meticulously rendered, that it actually circles back around to the realm of art again. For better or worse, it’s utterly unlike anything else you’ll see this year.
And I liked it.