Review: Only God Forgives

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Tom Burke, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Kovit Wattanakul

Rating: BBFC-18 Running Time: 90 mins

Julian Thompson (Ryan Gosling) lives in Thailand with his brother Billy (Tom Burke) where the two of them run a boxing club, a front for a drug smuggling operation. When Billy kills an underage prostitute, the Thai police are called in, and Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows Choi (Kovit Wattanakul), the father of the girl, time with Billy to do “whatever he wants”, ultimately with him killing Billy.

To punish Choi for prostituting his daughter to Billy in the first place and for the act of killing him, Chang cuts off Choi’s hand, and allows him to go free with the matter resolved. Julian then corners Choi seeking retribution for Billy’s death, but changes his mind when he learns why the man killed Billy, and instead decides to let him live. When Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Thailand to recover Billy’s body, she learns of Julian’s decision, and enraged, orders one of Julian’s men to kill Choi, an act which gains the interest of Chang, who is determined to follow the leads back to the source of the order and bring the culprit to justice.

The movie is a tour de force of hyper-styled movie making, much like Nicolas Wynding Refn’s previous movie Drive, but whereas that movie knew how far to push the limits of style in a scene, here those limits are tested continuously throughout, unfortunately to a detrimental effect. Entire sequences are set in nightclub-type locations where the neon lighting is the only source of light, scenes set in a high-rise hotel room and on the balcony are oddly vacant of any grand scale that you would expect, and entire scenes are played out with characters taking their time to do something as simple as walk along a corridor that should only be a precursor to the scene, instead of taking up the entirety of the scene.

There’s also a cross-cultural barrier that some audiences will struggle with. Where Drive was grounded very solidly in western philosophy, Only God Forgives is equally grounded in eastern philosophy, regarding honour, justice and retribution. A great sense of that eastern culture is especially present in scenes featuring Vithaya Pansringarm performing karaoke, often immediately after some of the harshest scenes in the movie. The meaning of this may not translate well for western audiences but in the east where karaoke has somewhat of a therapeutic effect it makes perfect sense for the character of Chang.

Gosling’s character is very similar to the one he played in Drive, as is his performance, again very subtle but incredibly electric throughout. Where the character of the driver was something of a sociopath, here the character of Julian is much more of a psychopath. To some the two may seem indistinguishable, but the basic difference is emotion and feeling, or rather the lack thereof. If you took the character of the driver and stripped away his emotion, Julian is what you would get – emotionally cold, uncertain in some situations, and more easily susceptible to outbursts and acts of violence. The character of Chang is equally as disturbed and amoral, but performs the acts that he does with a purpose, and with faith that what he is doing is necessary. Both characters are interestingly written, and just as interestingly portrayed by Gosling and Pansringarm.

Stand out of the cast is Kristen Scott-Thomas, playing Julian’s mother Crystal, a woman who comes into the movie as a controlling head of the family business, a vile and extremely unlike-able woman who utters despicable language, shows no remorse, and holds nothing back, openly showing her disdain for Julian as the least favourite of her two sons and bitter disappointment at his actions regarding her son’s killer as well as her emotional neglect that has made him the man he is today, yet upon their first shared scene there is an uneasiness to their relationship that feels uncomfortable to watch. Kristen Scott-Thomas disappears into the role, proving that she is an undeniably strong screen presence and despite the character, steals virtually every scene in which she appears.

Only God Forgives is not a great movie, but it’s an interesting watch. It may not entirely make sense upon initial viewing, but it will leave you with thoughts going through your head long after watching. A must for any fans of the performances of Ryan Gosling or Kristen Scott-Thomas, but a strong stomach is required to sit through some of the strong language and even stronger violence contained within. Not as strong or as clearly thought out as Nicolas Wynding-Refn’s Drive (which was this reviewer’s favourite movie of 2011 – can’t you tell?), but far from as bad as some reviewers have been making it out to be.

Posted on August 5, 2013, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I must say your review is far more positive than anything I’ve heard thus far. We did a podcast and while the style was praised, no one really had much positive to say about the story. I haven’t seen it and given what was said I probably would not enjoy this.

    Regardless we also reviewed Fruitvale Stsation as well which I did see and absolutely adored.
    Here is the podcast:

    • I like the look of Fruitvale Station, but no idea when i’ll getto see it, at present has no UK release date. You’ll probably be surprised i had fun with The Lone Ranger (highly problematic as it is – identity crisis, way, and is WAY too long – to name a few) when i saw it today, have to write that up and post it hopefully in the next day or so.

  2. Again, very well said!

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