1 hour 30 minutes
Rated R (Strong Bloody Violence Including Grisly Images, Sexual Content and Language)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Rhatha Phongam, Gordon Brown, and Tom Burke
1.5 out of 4 stars
ON DEMAND NOW. NOT SURE IT’S GETTING RELEASED IN PHILLY.
Only God Forgives is very stylish. That’s about the only thing it wants to be, as well as brutally, disgustingly, and excessively violent. It’s the newest movie by Nicolas Winding Refn, the visual extraordinaire who did the super cool, 80s-esque neo-noir Drive. Here he’s trying to pay homage to many genres; the revenge thriller, the noir, the martial arts B-movie, and the Lynchian surrealistic world where the viewer has no idea what the hell is going on. What’s supposed to be an unforgettable trip into a dream world turns into a nasty, depressing work of cinema. The movie is dull, unintentionally funny, and so darkly lit I had trouble figuring out which characters I was looking at. Ryan Gosling said that Only God Forgives was the strangest script he’d ever read. I believe him all the way, and I don’t blame him for starring in what may be his first “bad” movie. I’d kill to act in a Refn movie. This one’s too bizarre and frustratingly ambiguous for me.
Gosling plays Julian, a quiet man who runs a boxing club in Bangkok and uses the building as a place to sell drugs. Like in Drive, Gosling doesn’t talk much here. He just stares at walls in a catatonic state and does random things like lift his hands and squeeze his fists for no reason (I think he mainly does this because the movie is trying to be “weird”). Sometimes he meets up with Mai (Rhatha Phongam), a prostitute who ties his hands to a chair and pleasures herself in front of him. One night Julian’s brother, Billy (Tom Burke), rapes and murders a 16 year old prostitute. He confesses to the police and in comes Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), also known as the “Angel of Vengeance.” He’s obsessed with punishing people for their crimes and carries a ninja sword with him everywhere he goes. He contacts the girl’s father and he beats Billy to death.
Julian is a little sad, even though his brother certainly got what he deserved. Their trashy mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives in the city and seeks to avenge her son. Julian is hesitant, which only pisses her off more. And then, well, there’s not much else of a story. Chang is obsessed with singing karaoke and I don’t know why. It feels like Refn is trying to make a movie about a man questioning his morals. I may be wrong, though, because 80% of the time I had no idea what the heck was going on because so much of it consists of weird, dark, boring, hallucinatory sequences where Julian stares into space and walks in slow motion. Also, what is with the color red? It’s a motif in the movie and shows up so many times I couldn’t understand why it was so important. Is it because it’s the color of blood? Who knows.
The brutality in Only God Forgives is vile and grotesque. Drive was super violent too, yes, but that movie worked because it had a more involving story, a unique fairy tale quality to it, and the fact that we rooted for the main character. There’s a scene in this movie where a character slices another characters eyes from top to bottom with a knife. It’s not the same absorbing, “hate-to-watch-but-can’t-look-away” type of violence in Drive. It’s just awful. Maybe if Refn’s message came across more we could accept the movie’s extremeness. Overall this is just a film about mean people in a mean world. How can we like a movie when the characters are avenging someone who raped and murdered a 16 year old girl? No wonder people booed this when it screened at Cannes last spring.