Film review: Only God Forgives

WHATEVER happens, keep your eyes shut,” someone tells the crowd in a karaoke bar, just before a Thai policeman sets about the ritualised torture of a barman (Gordon Brown: no, another one).
Only God ForgivesOnly God Forgives
Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives (18)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Running time: 90 minutes


Why keep your eyes shut for just one scene, though, when you could keep them closed for the whole 90 minutes and spare yourself one of the silliest, most ponderous and needlessly abstruse films of the year?

Only God Forgives has grisly nods to incest, the odd exposed rack of human ribs, and many scenes of dismemberment, but the real shock is how many talented people have joined director Nicholas Winding Refn on a lurid tale that is such a dead end.

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Exhibit one is Refn’s Drive star and arthouse hunk du jour, Ryan Gosling, who unleashes even more of his patented soulful, thousand-mile stares to play Julian, who runs a kickboxing gym in Bangkok that’s a front for drugs. Julian is abrupt and abusive, but he’s a catatonic carebear compared with his brother Billy (Tom Burke), who rapes and murders a 16-year-old prostitute at the start of the film. This brings down the justice of police captain Chang, who seems to be the God of the title, and hails from the Old Testament end of town, since absolutely everyone within his orbit gets it in the neck, or the chest or the eyeball, when he’s around.

His weapon of choice is a samurai sword that he always carries on his back – an impressive look, although I can’t help wondering how Chang drives around Bangkok without razoring the seats. Even bowing must run the risk of accidentally dissecting the person behind him, and of course we never see him sit down for dinner.

Chang’s first punishment is meted out on Billy by locking him in a room with the girl’s grieving father who duly beats him to death. This draws out Billy and Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who flies into the country to bury Billy but chiefly to sort out revenge. Crystal has the hair of a Timotei ad, the makeup of a drag queen, and the mouth of a profoundly graphic potty. At dinner, she orders crab for herself and a pointed helping of chicken for Julian, then unfavourably compares her sons’ penis sizes to Julian’s date, who must have been thankful no-one ordered sausages. Crystal is awful, but Scott Thomas is fun while she’s raging about Julian’s failure to act in much the same way as Gosling’s fans may kvetch about his failure to remove his shirt in this film. In its lumpy, portentous way, Only God Forgives is positing Scott Thomas as a Mommie Dearest Gertrude to Gosling’s muscle-bound Hamlet, but despite its Shakespearian levels of violence, the film doesn’t achieve poetry, only doggerel, as its body count piles up.

Refn can be a commanding and provocative film-maker but his latest film is a punishing bore. The aim may be a sharp samurai sword in the ribs of bourgeois complacency, but he’s made a ridiculous film that homages and references other existential pot-stirrers like Kubrick and Lynch without having a personal signature of its own. The result is a pastiche of Asian martial fights, chic non-erotica and clueless offensiveness. Even God might find this grimly mannered mess unforgiveable.

Twitter @SiobhanSynnot

On general release from Friday