Review: Only God Forgives (2013)

The people who found Drive less than satisfactory — thinking it would be a Fast & Furious style actioner when they bought their tickets — are sure in for a treat with Only God Forgives. Although a little cold, Drive didn't distance its audience. Its heart burned with emotion. Its main character may have been a cipher, but you felt for him. If only the same could be said for Ryan Gosling’s Julian in Only God Forgives. Here is an allegorical film that misses the meaning behind the allegory. Or if it’s there, it’s so buried the audience can’t be bothered to dig it up.

Playing as a pseudo-western/Asian revenge thriller, Only God Forgives is essentially one gorgeously art directed execution scene after another. It follows Gosling’s Julian, a gangster of some-sort arranging boxing matches in Bangkok. His brother is killed and his mom, a fire-breathing Kristen Scott Thomas, shows up and demands he take revenge. The man behind his brother’s death is the terrifying police captain Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) and he is an exceedingly hard man to kill. Characters punish each other. We watch.

At first we’re tantalized by this gaudy, horrifying descent into hell (perhaps it’s a literal descent into hell, we’re never quite sure), but as the body count rises and Chang pulls out his sword from nowhere for the fourth time to lob off some piece of human flesh, we grow tired, and more than a little perplexed. What does this all mean?

There is symbolism embedded in Only God Forgives. It is mostly of a bluntly Freudian nature, all mother complexes and desires to crawl back into the womb. Chang also acts as the devil and punishes wrongdoers, forgoing all mercy, all forgiveness. But none of this is particularly clever.

There are moments I like about this film. If it were merely a collection of stand-alone images, Only God Forgives would be great. The cinematography is haunting, and director Nicolas Winding Refn manipulates the geography of scenes to wrap a nightmarish spell around the proceedings. Ryan Gosling looks great, and the sight of his pummeled face is appropriately shocking. Cliff Martinez’s score is memorable. The fact that Chang follows each killing with a karaoke rendition of a mopey Thai pop song is genius, and lends the film its Lynchian weirdness.

But Refn is no Lynch. He’s better when he’s dealing with a standard genre plot where he can explore his themes of violence and masculinity, rather than working in this kind of nightmare world. After the film, I mentioned to my girlfriend that if Only God Forgives is riffing on David Lynch, then it’s essentially an entire film that takes place in the Black Lodge on the last episode of Twin Peaks.

The influences are there. In a sense, this is Refn’s INLAND EMPIRE, but that film, which is almost unbearably long and dense, earned its weirdness by giving us characters to dive into. Extreme subjectivity is interesting in films when we’re submerged into the subconscious of characters. Terrence Malick’s films may be non-linear and hard to follow, but his impressionistic flourishes and scattered storytelling tell us things about the characters, about the way he sees the world, and about the tenuous pull between the spiritual world and reality.

Only God Forgives is impressionistic, like a series of murals that tell the semblance of a story with a beginning and an end; but as unbroken images, as a film where the scenes flow one into the next without break, it fails.

At the end of the film, the credits included a dedication to Alejandro Jodorowsky, the surrealist Mexican filmmaker of El Topo and The Holy Mountain. I can see that connection. But Only God Forgives is no El Topo. All I can hope is that like El Topo, Only God Forgives will reveal more upon revisits — granted the off chance I would want to revisit this film a few years from now. But for now, I will remain in the waking world and stay away from this nightmarish hell of a film.

4 out of 10

Only God Forgives (2013, USA/Thailand/France/Sweden)

Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Gordon Brown, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, and Tom Burke.