A follow up to his phenomenal 2011 film Drive, director Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest film Only God Forgives again stars Ryan Gosling, this time as an underground boxing ring owner in Bangkok. Like his character from Drive, his character here, Julian, is a man of few words, very few, like 15 maybe. But that doesn’t stop him from smuggling drugs with his brother Billy (Tom Burke) and basically validating the frequently disturbing cinematic reputation that Bangkok has acquired. When Billy is murdered for raping and murdering a sixteen-year-old, Julian and his partners find themselves compelled to hunt down his brother’s killer. Vengeance reigns as Julian and company find themselves facing off against Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a sword-wielding cop on a vendetta of his own.
Winding Refn has created a small and weird film. Essentially what we have here is a cold-hearted revenge film where one murder begets one more. What Winding Refn attempts to inject is a sense of mankind’s inherent evil in a spiritual battle where even God is pissed off. This is most apparent in his development of a hand/arm motif. By associating man’s arms/hands with the tools of vengeance, he does manage to create some provocative thematic quality. However, the film is mostly unsuccessful and feels like a perverse and twisted student film and not much more.
Not a lot happens in Only God Forgives as several scenes are composed of people just moving around, albeit moving around slowly and deliberately. Many scenes are composed of one-shots (one character in the frame) that last 30 seconds or more! This results in manufacturing the slowest 89 minute film in recent memory. A slight boost in pacing comes with the introduction of Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scot Thomas), who gives Joan Crawford a run for her money as a controlling matriarch.
Nonetheless, there is not much good to be said for the film. Gosling is practically emotionless, giving the blandest performance of his career, although clearly steered by Winding Refn.
Winding Refn’s directorial choices are certainly strange from time to time. With virtually no exposition, his film complicates matters by introducing confusing segments of “dream-like” scenarios (most of which include red dragon wallpaper) that may or may not be real. These segments feel forced and unnecessarily ambiguous with no rational purpose. Furthermore, a major talking point for this film is its use of violence. Only God Forgives appears to be an instrument for Winding Refn to release his own personal anger against spirituality, against God, against mothers – it’s an angry film. Much of this anger manifests as violence and while occasionally off screen, two rather brutal scenes do not hold back: one involving Chang, the other involving Julian and his mother. These scenes drip of anger but offer little redeeming quality (See No Country for Old Men for a film that accomplishes the task of personifying wrath).
While Winding Refn is a talented screenwriter and director, Only God Forgives is a mostly failed attempt at expounding on the undertakings of an angry God. Instead of making a film that analyzes and examines anger, he has made one that simply exudes his own. D+
Only God Forgives is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 29 minutes. Early reports of the film suggested it was astonishingly violent, yet while violent, it is more angry and pushes no boundaries set by multitudes of other gritty R rated vengeance films.