Only God Forgives is an experience. Stunning visuals, minimal dialog and a pounding, intense score all conspire to deliver one hell of a trip. Only God Forgives seems to be director and writer Nichols Winding Refn’s (Drive, Vahalla Rising) fever dream. With a lot of different threads in the film that rarely intertwined to a complete ending.
The bare bones story: A drug-smuggler (Ryan Gosling) thriving in Bangkok’s criminal underworld, sees his life get even more complicated when his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) compels him to find and kill whoever is responsible for his brother’s recent death. The film revolves around this revenge plot, but as alluded to before, nothing is really that straight forward. With the introduction of police chief Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the film changes and its clear that Chang is the link to everyone in the film.
Gaspar Noe was cited as an influence on the film and it shows. Not only in its nihilism, but also in the way the film is mostly bathed in red neon. When it’s not red, the colours are quite dull and washed out. The film is impeccably shot and cinematographer Larry Smith should be applauded as this film looks great and because Refn has deliberately paced this as a slow, almost static film, you can’t help but wonder what the deeper meanings are behind some of the shots. As mentioned before, the score of the film is amazing and adds another layer of detail to the film through it’s use.
Gosling (Drive, The Ides of March) plays Julian a man who really does seem dead inside, gaining no enjoyment from anything that he does. He is silent for the majority of the film, barely uttering a word and showing hardly any emotion, whether it be on his face or through his dialogue. However, this film belongs to Pansringarm and Kristin Scott Thomas, playing Chang and Crystal respectively. Thomas is particularly effective as Julian’s mother, a horrible creature that is as ugly on the inside as any other film character. An awful piece of work. Kudos must go to Thomas for fully developing the character. Her first scenes with Gosling are some of the creepiest scenes you’ll see this year. Pansingarm also plays his part very well. He is calm, calculated and has an air of invincibility about him.
I think that Refn’s title of the film gives the events to come some weight and in particular gives clues to the character of Chang. Chang could well be either God or an avenging angel of God. Chang seems to be punishing the wicked (i.e just about everyone in the film) with his sword, which he seems to produce when needed. The violence in Only God Forgives is brutal, especially a protracted scene of torture which had more than a few cinema patrons running for the door.
Only God Forgives is a surreal nightmare at times. Beautiful, but confused. You can almost see what Refn was trying to do here, but it doesn’t quite come together. There are various strands that had all been touched on throughout the film, but none which are ever fully developed. However, maybe this is the point of the film. Regardless of what else is going on, you’ll eventually be hunted down for your bad deeds. I am not sure if this film will find an audience. Maybe some die hard Gosling fans will turn up but leave soon after. Not a complete film for me, but one that I will definitely be thinking about for some time to come.