When Only God Forgives was first screened for critics at Cannes, it was met mostly with boos. It’s true that some audience members attempted to rescue it with an ovation, but who knows whether they were applauding the movie because they liked it, or because they were just pleased to see something outrageous enough to make people stand up and jeer. Besides, nobody simply liked Only God Forgives. Nobody thought it was just okay. They either loved it, or they hated it. No middle ground. This is hardly surprising, of course – it’s a Nicolas Winding Refn movie. I’ve seen all of them at least once, and with the obvious exception of Drive, a masterpiece, I still can’t say with any certainty whether or not I like any of them.
Many of this film’s supporters would suggest that whether you like it or not depends largely on your understanding of the director’s intended message. I don’t really think that’s the case. Only God Forgives is so open to interpretation I’m still not sure if there’s a message to be found at all. It could be a work of near-genius, but it could equally make no sense whatsoever.
Here’s what I know for certain: Ryan Gosling plays Julian, an American expatriate (that’s white for “immigrant”) who runs a Muay Thai gym in Bangkok as a front for his family’s drug smuggling operation. His older brother, Billy, is a violent, deranged psychopath who rapes and murders an underage prostitute for no reason other than he feels like it, leading to his apprehension by the Thai police and, specifically, Vithaya Pansringarm’s Lieutenant Chang, who allows the father of the murdered girl to beat Billy to death. In retaliation, Kristin Scott Thomas arrives in Bangkok playing extremely against type as Crystal, the mother of Julian and Billy, who demands revenge against pretty much everyone.
As a premise this is relatively straightforward, but where it leads most certainly is not. The plot winds a serpentine trail through a blood-soaked, neon-drenched, Bangkok-inspired dreamscape, never really clarifying what is real or imagined, content to communicate through metaphor and symbolism rather than traditional spoken dialogue. It’s all very, very strange, and wavers between high-brow film art and low-brow sleaze from almost one scene to the next.
I don’t doubt Winding Refn’s talent as a filmmaker. His previous collaboration with Gosling, Drive, was a genuinely fantastic, artistic interpretation of a well-worn genre, and Bronson before it a fascinating study of a legendary figure in British criminal history. His eye for visual composition and mis-en-scene is incredibly keen, and while his imagination is worryingly dark at times, his work is often a demonstration of a true auteur operating at the peak of his abilities. What frequently hobbles Only God Forgives, however, despite its trademark stylistically-rich visuals, is its own self-interest. Refn’s dogged pursuit of artistic statement has rendered much of the film remarkably obtuse and difficult to fathom.
Much of this comes down to the lack of a relatable character, and the complete refusal of the ones we have to develop in any significant way. Julian has only seventeen lines of dialogue in the entire film, and the character is so reticent and dispassionate that even when he is speaking it’s impossible to care about what he’s saying. Ryan Gosling seems to specialize in playing characters with almost zero emotional range, but I’m not entirely sure if that’s a talent or not. He has undeniable screen presence, but his character here is so reactionary that it’s wasted. Julian never comes across as an independent individual, but rather a conduit through which others enact their own schemes; particularly his mother, a mob boss matriarch channelling Lady MacBeth and Olivia Soprano in about equal measure. Their relationship is littered with heavy-handed oedipal motifs, and every exchange is uncomfortable to watch. Kristin Scott Thomas attacks the role with real tenacity, but Crystal is such an uncompromisingly savage and deluded character she’s honestly repellent. “Billy raped and murdered a sixteen year-old girl,” Julian says to her. “Well, I’m sure he had his reasons”.
Julian and Crystal do seem secondary to the character of Lieutenant Chang though, who really deserves a paragraph all of his own. I’m still unsure whether or not he actually exists, or is a figment of Julian’s warped subconscious; he does seem to represent atonement, styling himself as some sort of Old Testament God dispensing swift and righteous justice, so perhaps he is the key to the door of the private purgatory Julian exists within as a result of his psychotic, dysfunctional family. It’s impossible to really know for sure, but Chang is undeniably the backbone of the film, in one scene drawing a sword literally right out of his back for a violent dismemberment, and in the next popping to a local bar for a spot of karaoke (which Pansringarm sang himself). He’s such a surreal figure that his scenes are impossibly captivating, and as his peers sit around and stare up at him reciting ballads with doe-eyed adoration, Only God Forgives becomes a powerful, mesmerizing piece of work by virtue of its own lunacy.
Much has been made of the film’s violence, with phrases such as torture-**** being tossed around quite liberally, but I honestly don’t see it. Most of the brutality is merely alluded to or takes place off screen, and what we do see is frequently cut away from very quickly. There is an extended sequence in which Chang extracts information using a pair of hair pins and a paring knife, but it’s really no worse than what we’ve seen in countless other films and, for me, not nearly as disturbing as the elevator stomping in Refn’s own Drive. It’s undeniably adult, but never to the degree that the film qualifies as controversy-bait in the way A Serbian Film or The Human Centipede do. Far more off-putting is the lack of narrative coherence, but the more I sit here and think about it the more I’m convinced that Only God Forgives is entirely what Winding Refn wanted it to be. I just have no clue what that is.
Honourable mention really must go to Cliff Martinez’s frankly superb score, which is deserving of a more accessible if not accomplished work. It’s a mesmerizing, gorgeous mélange of eerie Eastern sounds, and was one of the year’s best.
Do I recommend Only God Forgives? Not really. It is too frequently darker and more impenetrable than any film ought to be, but there is an almost ethereal quality it resonates which is very difficult to just sweep aside and ignore. In many ways, it deserves to be seen. If I had been at that original showing among the cheers and jeers, I don’t know entirely which side I would have joined. What I do know is that the film would have stayed with me long after the reaction had subsided, so perhaps that speaks for itself.
Note: There would usually be a score here, but I honestly couldn’t assign this film a numerical representation. It’s too weird. Make your own mind up.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.