Only God Forgives (2013)

“You can’t see what is good for you. So it’s better if you don’t see.”

★★

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm

Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives

Nicolas Winding Refn’s ninth feature, Only God Forgives, had me disappointed and annoyed in the first half, puzzled throughout the second half, and then deeply contemplative on my train ride home from the cinemas.  Hence, the two stars.

At first, it was difficult to discern whether the film was actually achieving anything. Only God Forgives follows the story of US ex pat (Gosling) Julian, living in Bangkok and running a kickboxing gym to disguise his real work: dealing drugs with his older brother Billy and random family friend/colleague. When his brother goes on a weird bloody rampage and kills a prostitute, he finds himself lying on a hotel floor with his head bashed in by the prostitute’s father. Overseeing this whole fiasco is Chang (Pansringarm) – a retired policeman who goes around chopping people’s limbs off according to his own sense of justice. When Julian’s mother, Crystal (Scott Thomas), however, arrives to claim her son’s body and get revenge, Julian is sucked into a moral dilemma of family obligation versus his own conscience.

Summarized in this way, the film doesn’t seem puzzling at all. But when this simple plot is given the Refn makeover, it turns out to be a piece by piece, connect-the-dots type of movie that is so uncompromising in its style and pace that it almost hurts to watch it. This could have been helped with a protagonist that we genuinely care about. For the first hour or so of the film, no amount of arm flexing or heel clicking around by Ryan Gosling makes us care for his character. There is only one pivotal scene and snatches of dialogue from Crystal that make us care about him, and even then, it comes too little and too late.

Having said that, in my post-movie state, the film made me over-analyze what Refn may have been trying to do. My interpretation is that Only God Forgives is Julian’s nightmare – an experience that involved the unearthing of all of his inner demons and coming face to face with the inevitable punishment (embodied by Chang) that he believes he deserves, but has been running away from all this time. In this sense, the backdrop of Bangkok only serves to signify the corruption and debasement that Julian feels he is a part of, and his brother’s strangely inhumane actions link to an evil as thick as blood that Julian feels guilty of being a part of.

Whatever Refn was trying to do, it could have been significantly more effective if he balanced the amount of silent, drawn out scenes with actual dialogue, scenes more representative of the character’s depth/true nature, and brutality scenes that were more convincing/engaging. I do not doubt that the concept for this film is incredibly deep and thought-provoking in Refn’s head, but it’s a shame that he couldn’t share that with his audience in a way that was far reaching and powerful. 

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