Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Starring: Ryan Gosling (Julian), Kristin Scott Thomas (Crystal), Vithaya Pansringarm (Chang), Gordon Brown (Gordon), Yayaying Rhatha Phongam (Mai), Tom Burke (Billy), Sahajak Boonthanakit (Kim), Pitchawat Petchayahon (Phaiban), Charlie Ruedpokanon (Daeng), Kovit Wattanakul (Choi Yan Lee), Wannisa Peungpa (Kanita), Narucha Chaimareung (Papa San).
Nothing would make me happier than being able to say that Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives was some sort of misunderstood masterpiece or at least a guilty pleasure. This is, after all, the Danish filmmaker’s follow-up to Drive – one of my absolute favorite films of 2011, and arguably the best crime drama of this young decade so far, and Only God Forgives ranked very high on my most anticipated films of the year list. But alas, I cannot say that, because Only God Forgives is a horrible movie – violent and pretentious in equal doses, with most of the characters seemingly on the verge of falling asleep during any of their line readings. Drive was a crime drama that was deeper than it initially appeared to be (and I stand by that, even if I seem to be in the minority in thinking so – even among the many people who loved Drive). Only God Forgives on the other hand is a movie that acts like it is about something deeper – but peel back the layers and there’s nothing there. And yet, you watch the movie and you can tell everyone involved in making it is extremely talented – they just laid an egg this time out. Really talented people can work far worse movies than non-talented people – and Only God Forgives is a perfect example of that.
The movie takes place in Bangkok. Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) work there as drug dealers, and have a boxing club as a front. After a violent fight sequence kicks off the film, we follow Billy on his quest to, in his words, “Fuck a 14 year old”. It doesn’t take him long to find one – but he doesn’t merely fuck her, he rapes and murders her. The cops – led by Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) are called – but Chang doesn’t arrest Billy. Instead, he calls the dead girl’s father, screams at him for allowing his daughter to become a prostitute, and then leaves him alone in the room with Billy. Needless to say, Billy doesn’t last long. Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok, and wants Julian to avenge his brother. When Julian finds out what Billy did, he kind of thinks his brother got what was coming to him – but his she-devil of the mother doesn’t care (“He must have had his reasons” she says) and wants the man who murdered her son – and Chang, the cop who allowed it to happen – and pretty much everyone else in Thailand to die to avenge her beloved son.
All of this probably sounds a lot better than the movie actually is. The basic plot outline could very easily be made into an extremely violent, entertaining crime thriller. Something like Drive, in fact. Winding Refn shouldn’t be expected to repeat himself – and while you can by the ever moving camera in Only God Forgives and the changing color palette that the same person is behind both films, the only way in which these films are really similar is that both are extremely violent and bloody. I don’t have a problem with blood and violence in a movie – as long as there seems to be a reason for it. In Only God Forgives, there doesn’t appear to be. There are no good guys in Only God Forgives, only degrees of awful really, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing if the characters we interesting – the problem being they’re not. Ryan Gosling, normally one of the best actors working together, appears almost comatose throughout the movie. His character in Drive didn’t say much – neither did his character in this year’s The Place Beyond the Pines – but in both of those movies, you could tell there was something going on inside of the characters – his performance in Drive in particular is masterfully subtle. But in Only God Forgives, he simply seems bored, lifeless and dull. I have heard some critics say that the sword wielding cop Chang, played by Vithaya Pansringarm, is the film’s hero, but really, he’s just as bad as everyone else – which again, I don’t object to, if he plays an interesting character. The problem is he doesn’t. The revelation about his home life may explain why he does what he does, but it doesn’t make him any more interesting. And why the hell the movie has him sing karaoke on a number of occasions?
There are two good things about Only God Forgives. One of them is the performance by Yayaying Rhatha Phongam as Mai, a prostitute frequented by Julian, who he stupidly brings along as his date to meet his mother. This is a small role – and she doesn’t really have much to do – but she does it remarkably well, making Mai into the only sympathetic character in the moving – the only person the audience can possibly care about. The other is the performance by Kristen Scott Thomas. Unlike everyone else in the movie, there is passion in her performance. Yes, she is in many ways a one note villain – whose every line is dripping with hatred, racism, cruelty, and creepiness in the way she talks about her sons and their penises (I’m pretty sure she has slept with both in them in the past). Everyone else in the movie is subdued almost to the point of lulling the audience to sleep – but you sit up and take notice when she’s onscreen.
Only God Forgives is a pretentious mess of a film. If Winding Refn had just given in to his base instincts (he has said repeatedly he makes “pornography” when talking about Only God Forgives) he may not have made a film as good as Drive, but he could have made Only God Forgives into a violent guilty pleasure. But by taking the film so deadly seriously, by draining it of any pleasure whatsoever, and seemingly instructing the entire cast except for Scott Thomas to play their roles like zombies, he has made a film that is both sickeningly violent and deadly dull. And that makes Only God Forgives one of the year’s worst films.