I’d be curious to know what God makes of this film because, personally, my reaction is not terribly forgiving. The film’s violence is wicked, its performances bereft of emotion or compassion, and its demeanor altogether vile. Only God Forgives sparks more interest for its lighting and color scheme, which exploit all the shades of red and black, and some of the background wallpaper that has designs more intricate than anything occurring in the foreground. Most unforgivable, however, is allowing Kristin Scott Thomas, an international queen of sensitive arthouse cinema, to play against type as an ultimate queen-bitch mother and deliver a lousy performance. But, hey, at least she’s emoting, which is lots more than can be said of Ryan Gosling’s impassive presence.
To be fair, let me say that reactions to Only God Forgives have, so far, proven terribly divisive. This was the case last May at the Cannes Film Festival, where, only two years earlier, Nicolas Winding Refn received the Best Director Award for his last film, Drive. Certainly, the style and themes of Only God Forgives aren’t departures from Refn’s previous work; the extreme violence, the taciturn figures, the striking visuals all can be seen in varying degrees in his previous films, but this time Refn cranks up these aspects to the point of distortion.
As in Drive, Refn casts Gosling as the story’s protagonist, but more than before, he uses the actor as he might a model, as an object in a tableau rather than a conveyor of any narrative or meaning. The character’s name is Julian and he operates a Muay Thai boxing gym in Bangkok (where the entire film is set), which is really a front for a drug-smuggling ring run by his mother Crystal (played by Scott Thomas in a blond wig and a Donatella Versace-esque appearance). In short order, Julian’s brother Billy (Burke) rapes and kills a 16-year-old girl, and is executed in turn by the girl’s father. His death brings Crystal to Bangkok to claim the body of her favorite son and exact the revenge that Julian seems reluctant to dole out. There’s also the police chief Chang (Pansringarm), who doles out his own private justice with a hidden sword strapped to his back when he’s not otherwise occupied singing sentimental songs at the karaoke bar.
The film also reunites Refn with his Bronson director of photography Larry Smith and Drive composer Cliff Martinez, whose soundtrack functions like a sonorous wave. Interestingly, Refn also dedicates the film to The Holy Mountain’s Alejandro Jodorowsky. Long after Only God Forgives concludes, only its scuzziness remains. This artistic misfire will forever be knocking on heaven’s door.
See “To Forgive, Divine,” July 19, for an interview with Nicolas Winding Refn and Cliff Martinez.