Film review: Only God Forgives (18)

Only God Forgives was booed at Cannes, but this sumptuously shot anti-revenge movie deserves much better than that

Ryan Gosling as Julian and Yahaying Rhatha Phongam as Mai in Only God Forgives


Directed by: Nicholas 
Winding Refn

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Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristen Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Tom Burke

Star rating: * * * *

It would be a mistake to go into Only God Forgives expecting a pseudo-sequel to Drive. Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest may see him reteaming with stoic superstar Ryan Gosling, but aside from Gosling’s dialogue again being pared to the bone (OK, and the presence of a certain level of aestheticized violence that’s as eye-wateringly gorgeous as it is brutal), the two movies have little in common.

Drive was a seductive genre piece, a film that worked by riffing on a wealth of other movies and breaking them down to their constituent parts in order to demonstrate their primal appeal could be a thing of beauty in and of itself. Only God Forgives works from the opposite impulse. It’s a sumptuously shot anti-revenge movie that shows how ugly the genre’s baser elements are by setting up certain expectations and pointedly refusing to deliver on any of them. Its hero, Julian (Gosling), for instance, isn’t really a hero at all. A Muay Thai boxing club manager who uses his business as a front for shadier dealings in Bangkok’s narcotics and vice-ridden underworld, he may seem like a classic outlaw thanks to his taciturn demeanour and Gosling’s inherent movie star aura, but as soon becomes evident, Julian is not someone who adheres to a strong personal code, nor someone who is particularly driven by the sort of (misplaced) righteousness that makes vengeful actions – however unsettling – appear just. In truth, he’s more like a passive secondary character, a weak, emasculated figure elevated to the position of protagonist as much by our own preconceptions as Refn’s own perverse attempts to subvert them.

As such, the film’s actual hero figure – the avenging angel with whom we’d be invited to empathise had Refn chosen a western setting rather than a Thai one – is really Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). He’s a violent, impassive, karaoke-loving cop who roams Bangkok’s netherworld with a sword, dispensing his own brand of limb-lopping, torso-slicing, eye-piercing justice – like a samurai Charles Bronson. His targets aren’t just the perverts, sickos and western infiltrators exploiting his city’s seedy reputation for their own ends, however; they also include those whose own lack of character enables such moral decrepitude to flourish.

When he permits a grieving father to beat the murderer of his teenage daughter to death, for instance, he follows up this act of Old Testament-style justice by chopping off the father’s hand for pimping his underage daughter out in the first place. Idle hands are the devil’s tools, the film seems to be saying, and in this neon-lit circle of hell such direct and uncompromising action is a symbol of the moral absolutism required to counter the craziness.

This sickeningly violent incident is the plot kicker that sets Julian and Chang on a collision course. The aforementioned murderer of the prostitute was Julian’s older brother Billy (Tom Burke) and his execution at the hands of her now one-handed father is, in the gangland world Julian occupies, grounds for revenge. Julian, however, can’t bring himself to follow through on his expected duty and his initial failure to kill the man responsible for killing his older brother incurs the wrath of his monstrous mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas), an unsettling Oedipal nightmare who struts around Bangkok like Jackie Onassis re-imagined as a past-her-prime Vegas showgirl.

Having flown in from the US to take home the body of her beloved first born –and attend to some trafficking business while she’s at it – Crystal is adamant that her son should be avenged. Never mind that Billy was a violent misogynist paedophile; family is family and, as Crystal puts it when informed of his proclivities, “he probably had his reasons.” With Julian unable to follow through, though, she delegates her crew of ex-pat thugs to take care of business, a course of action that brings the family to the attention of Chang and draws Julian reluctantly into his path.

What follows is a strange, meditative character piece, one punctuated by moments of shocking violence that emphasise how pathetic Julian’s efforts to both please his mother and loosen her grip on his life really are. Refn was ready to shoot Only God Forgives after Valhalla Rising, his magnificent, hallucinatory, Scottish-set Viking epic, and the two movies have a similarly elliptical approach to character and backstory. The space he affords his actors allows them create performances that transform such sparingly sketched people into mythical beings, with Scott Thomas and Gosling in operating on a level of Greek tragedy that’s unnerving precisely because of how strikingly Refn composes every shot.

Still, this won’t be for everyone and the reactions thus far – it was booed at Cannes – suggest it’s a film destined to be either loved or despised. Both reactions seem equally valid. Like Chang, Refn is railing against passivity. His methods are extreme, but they 
cut deep.