Take Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas out of the equation,
and Only God Forgives is no more than
a stylish midnight movie about murder,
vengeance and drug-dealing in Bangkok. But there they are, exuding talent
and legitimacy: Gosling stony-faced yet magnetic
as Julian, who runs a boxing gym, and Scott Thomas breaking her own mold in a
Donatella Versace platinum wig as his drug-boss mother, Crystal. They make this
the latest in Nicolas Winding Refn’s strenuous attempt, after the cult-y Valhalla Rising and the mainstream Drive, to blur the line between
exploitation and something that approaches art. They almost help him get there.
If you’re a fan of Refn’s Drive, (and I am) with Gosling as its nearly silent hero, be
prepared for a darker, campier film. Only
God Forgives takes place in a shadowy world
— so literally full of shadows and bathed in blood-red light that you
see right away this is not an exercise in subtlety. (That red-tinged photo above
is exactly what much of the film looks like.) It’s also a world littered with
characters best described as sick
The first sicko is Julian’s brother, Billy, who sets off the
revenge plot by raping and murdering a young prostitute. Chang, a vigilante
former cop who runs a gang of thugs and goes around delivering his own kind of justice,
locks the dead girl’s father in a room with her corpse and Billy; there are two
corpses when the father leaves. Then Crystal arrives in Bangkok, and takes out
hits on characters right and left, on a mission to get the people who killed
If this sounds like an action film, take a breath, because Refn
moves slowly. It must take 15 minutes before Gosling says a word, and his
expression is totally affectless no matter what terrible news Julian gets. In
fact, everyone is affectless except Crystal. I’m not going to be the one to
count, but there are probably fewer facial movements per minute here than any
film this side of Andy Warhol.
Until very near the end, Julian is the good guy by default.
All he does is work for his family’s drug ring, so he’s an innocent by
comparison. Gosling has tremendous range and one of the most interesting careers
around. He can dazzle in a mainstream romantic comedy like Crazy Stupid Love and carry a gritty drama like The Place Beyond the Pines. Even he can’t
make up for Refn’s underwritten screenplay, though. In the very late reveal about
Julian you don’t see his character fall into place so much as feel the writer manipulating
Scott Thomas never breaks character as the foul-mouthed,
racist, murder-ordering Mom — smoking ultra-thin cigarettes, wearing orange
nail polish and layers of false eyelashes. But you can almost feel her glee at
being released from all her brilliant high-art roles.
She makes the film kind of a hoot, blood and all — until you
get to a disgusting torture-porn scene, which neither Gosling nor Scott Thomas
has anything to do with. It’s as if Refn can’t help pushing himself not further
toward art but lower toward crap.
Yet he is quite deliberate about the stylized visuals. The film is loaded with
images of hands, some going into extremely private places, others chopped off. And there is the recurring
image of Chang’s vengeful sword, seen against a black backdrop before it
swerves toward its targets.
Refn has said that the film poses existential questions, but
Drive, with its hero trying to stay
detached from moral judgments (“I just drive.”) comes much closer to doing
that. Here the title offers the only clue to that weighty theme, and like the
rest of the film it isn’t quite enough. Yet even when it’s silly and gross, Only God Forgives is an intriguing journey into what stardom and style can and can’t do. I’m
not sorry I saw it — even though it’s more camp and cult than art.