The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Only God Forgives

Reviewed by Dario Llinares.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn
Length 90 mins
Certificate 18 / R
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

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The very pitch of this film is an unashamed play on expectation. Nicolas Winding Refn directs Ryan Gosling as a Bangkok kickboxing club owner, which is actually a front for a drug dealing operation, in a stylish and violent revenge thriller. Errr… yes, I’m in. Certainly Only God Forgives has a self-awareness that reflects the cult classic status of the actor/director’s previous collaboration Drive (2011). The similarities are there: richly sumptuous aesthetic sensibility, minimalist narrative set-up, viscerally violent paroxysms, self-contained urban milieu, and alienated characters that exist in perpetual existential crisis. Only God Forgives, however, ventures into even deeper extremes, unflinchingly exploring the shadowy lines between pleasure and pain, sex and death, with hedonistic and bloodthirsty virtuosity. Such uncompromising polemics will leave viewers disgusted or exhilarated, perhaps even both simultaneously.

After Drive and this year’s Gangster Squad and The Place Beyond the Pines, Gosling is obviously the marquee attraction, and the ad posters and trailer for Only God Forgives exploit his persona as the contemporary answer to Steve McQueen or Marlon Brando. As Julian, however, Gosling takes monosyllabic intensity to the point where it becomes totally vacuous, stripped of any cool, brooding sexiness. What is left is a dysfunctional shell of self-loathing that deliberately denies the viewer empathy or projective pleasure. Julian is initially tasked with avenging his older brother Billy (Tom Burke), who was killed for raping and murdering a young prostitute. In a fleeting moment of morality Julian allows the father of the murdered girl, and the killer of his brother, to go free. But the murderous carnage brings him up against the brutal Police Chief, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), whose omnipotent ‘justice’ is exacted through a ritualistic, machete-wielding terror. Chang’s sadism, enigmatically interspersed with kitsch renditions of sentimental karaoke numbers, imbues the character with a macabre cartoonishness.

This heady cocktail of bizarre spectacle is made even more potent with the arrival of Julian’s mother Crystal, a psychotic, expletive firing, gangster matriarch played with absolute relish by Kristin Scott Thomas. Her performance is like a cross between a Desperate Housewife and Ben Kingsley’s rancid hit man Don Logan in Sexy Beast (2000). Crystal has no time for Julian’s self-questioning and sets up her own plan for revenge. Oedipal dramas abound in the relationship between her and her two sons, providing some context for how we understand Julian. His strange and stunted sexuality is depicted through a relationship with a prostitute call Mai (Rhatha Phongam) and upon introducing her to Crystal the Freudian impact of the mother/son dynamic is made palpably and disturbingly apparent.

This film is patently not for everyone. Accusations of arty pretension and empty style over coherent substance are easy criticisms of Only God Forgives. Furthermore, no one in the film is redeemable and I felt myself constantly questioning the nihilistic excessiveness of the ultraviolence - aspects I will explore further in my Alternate Take. The film does however exemplify an audacious cinematic craftsmanship that is, at times, truly mesmerising. There is a sublime beauty and painstaking attention to the aesthetic detail of every shot, resulting in a baroque nightmare of tawdriness that is, paradoxically, a visual feast that demands contemplation. Myriad influences from the romantic nuance of Wong Kar-wai and the savage intensity of early John Woo to the minimalist tension of Tran Anh Hung permeate the film’s texture. The spectre of David Lynch is evidenced in the appropriation of strained electronic sounds underscoring surrealist symbolism and the film’s disorientating editing, which blurs the line between reality and fantasy. Only God Forgives is a brilliant and bewildering exposition of cinematic extravagance and artistic esotericism.

This review was published on August 05, 2013.