Nicolas Winding Refn any slack for this head-scratcher of a movie?
Coming into Only God Forgives, I was already on the fence regarding Refn. I was a huge fan of Bronson (that was based on a true story though), but could barely get through the slog that was Valhalla Rising. Despite all the critical acclaim and even my own initial love for Drive, I've since soured upon it after realizing many inaccuracies regarding cars and the plot. If you make something called Drive and can't get your facts straight about cars, it kind of comes off as arrogant to me. Then, I heard about how he called Carey Mulligan "chubby", and was like the guy is kind of an ass. Having said all that, I watched Only God Forgives with a fairly open mind, and even though I can't say I liked it, I'm still willing to watch future films of his. I'll give him credit for doing something different.
At least Only God Forgives has a general plot, but bear with me as I'm going to have to get into some spoiler territory to explain it all. Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his older brother Billy (Tom Burke, who looks like a poor man's Michael Shannon) run a Thai boxing gym in Bangkok. They are also criminal drug dealers. Billy, in particular, is a real piece of work. He rapes and kills an underage prostitute, but is caught by the police. Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows the father of the prostitute to beat Billy to death, but then cuts off the father's arm as punishment for allowing his daughter to be a prostitute. It wasn't clear to me at first that Chang was even a cop. Based on his behavior and methods, I thought he might be some kind of rival crime lord.
Their mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives to take care of the body, but she also wants revenge. She's disappointed to learn that Julian has already let the father go once he found out that Billy raped and killed his daughter. "I'm sure he had his reasons", she said. While unintentionally hilarious, it illustrates the kind of person Crystal is. Later we see that she had a very bizarre relationship with her sons, so it kind of makes you understand how these two didn't go down a good path. I enjoyed Scott's performance the most though. She's so creepy and horrible.
Crystal hires a series of hitmen to take out Chang, but he's always one step ahead of them. Chang is ready with his magical "Sword of Justice" to deal out the punishment. I call his sword magical, because it always seemed to come out of nowhere. You'd see shots of Chang from the back where he didn't appear to have a sword on him, but he could reach behind his head and unsheathe it when needed.
I'll say this for Refn, he doesn't shy away from brutal violence. This features bashed-in heads, forced amputation, and people sliced open. It's gorier than a lot of horror films I've seen lately. I also kind of got a misogynistic vibe as well. Billy's opening moments are asking if he can have sex with a 14-year-old, and then beats up a different woman before finally raping and killing the 16-year-old. He's quite the psychopath. Then we see Julian have a prostitute tie him down to a chair while watching her masturbate. Later he forces that same prostitute to remove a dress he bought her after taking her on a fake date. Don't even get me into the weird shit that happens on later in the on between Julian and Crystal. I'm still trying to figure out what the hell one of the final scenes was supposed to mean.
At times it gets all metaphysical with several dreamlike sequences that either flashback or foreshadow events in the story. It's a little confusing and hard to watch at times. It also doesn't help that Refn doesn't seem to be a big fan of dialog. Ryan Gosling has one word, not even a full line of dialog, but one word spoken in the first 23 minutes. I don't know what it is about Gosling, but he seems to be on a recent streak of movies that don't really demand him to speak all that much. You can practically count the number of lines of dialog said by the main characters on a hand. Is Refn's next film going to be called Stoic? You don't get any emotion from anyone.
Only God Forgives is shot after shot of people stand and staring, or walking slowly past doorways. I've often heard that every scene of a film should advance the plot or develop a character in some way. I can't say that happens here. There's one scene where Gosling stares at his fists and then turns the light off at his gym. What was that scene trying to say? When Chang isn't doling out justice, he sings karaoke. This happens several times. Is this to show how dispassionate he is about what he's doing? I get that you can tell a story visually without dialog, but several times I found myself scratching my head wondering what the hell was going or what was trying to be said.
There are some interesting themes regarding family, justice and honor though. While watching you may change your opinion over who the bad guys are. I started thinking that Chang was the bad guy, but was rooting for him by the end. I also looked at Julian as a grey character. Despite being a criminal, he does have a code of honor, and couldn't completely dislike him either. The best moment is a showdown between Julian and Chang that I actually had to rewind and watch several times I enjoyed it so much.
Refn does have a very interesting visual style and I like the way he framed many of the scenes. Even though I don't always like the story, I at least appreciate his films for their look. While I liked the soundtrack to Drive quite a bit, I thought with Only God Forgives at times it sounded a plane passing overhead. Later I was reminded of something from a creepy horror film. It's very moody.
A challenging movie, Only God Forgives is not going to be for everyone. It's pacing and lack of dialog will make this feel longer than its 90 minute runtime for most. Some may not even be able to finish it with all the weirdness and violence. While beautifully shot and there are some interesting themes, there's only a handful a moments that made this watchable. Even the most die-hard Ryan Gosling fans are likely not going to be able to enjoy this one. I can only recommend this one if you are a fan of Nicolas Winding Refn, and even then it's a rental at best.
2 (out of 5) Death Stars