Skip to content

Only God Forgives (2013)

August 25, 2013




written by: Nicolas Winding Refn

produced by: Lene Børglum

directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

rating: R (for strong bloody violence including grisly images, sexual content and language) 

runtime: 90 min.

U.S. release date: July 19, 2013 (limited theatrically and VOD) 


Sometimes you get your hopes up for an upcoming film by a filmmaker you’ve come to respect and appreciate that you just allow the synopsis alone to bait you with anticipation and sometimes you get let down after finally watching it. Extremely let down. Sadly, “Only God Forgives” falls into that category. It’s the latest film from director Nicolas Wending Refn, following his ultra-cool “Drive” from 2011, which starred Ryan Gosling as a “real hero”. This film, which reteams Gosling with Refn, is the exact opposite of “Drive” and while I didn’t anticipate or want anything similar to their last film, I didn’t expect to be so put off by it either. It sounded promising and wound up looking quite good, with surreal visuals and striking color palette, but that’s about it for this pretentious slog of violence and bore.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) is an American running a kickboxing ring in Bangkok, who relies heavily on drug smuggler for his real income. He’s made a name for himself in the criminal underworld, but everything changes for him when his low-life brother, Billy (Tom Burke) brutally rapes and kills a sixteen year-old prostitute. As atonement for the grisly murder, local police captain Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, “The Hangover Part II”) delivers his own brand of justice by having the girl’s father kill her murderer.  As punishment for allowing his daughter to fall into such depravity, Chang cuts off the man’s arm with a katana sword.

Julian gets in on the violence as well by bloodying his knuckles on anyone involved in killing his brother, which catches the attention of the cold and relentless Chang. Enter Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), mother of the brothers, who flies in from the States demanding death as revenge for the murder of her favorite son. Badgered by his monster of a mother, Julian pursues those responsible, while seeking refuge in the comfort of Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) a young dancer whom he fantasizes over. He becomes less and less motivated to fulfill his mother’s wishes, knowing his brother’s cruel behavior led to his demise. Regardless, Chang hones in on Julian, deflecting ineffective assassination attempts and pursuing his own bloody swath of violence.




That’s the gist of the film and really all it has to offer. Endless cycles of brutal violence and vulgar cruelty. There’s nothing to connect the viewer to any of these characters in any way whatsoever. We just watch and try to figure out who they are and how they’ve become so vapid, abhorrent and reprehensible. There’s no one to root for, except for maybe the police captain – but only at first, until he becomes a robotic samurai.

The problems with “Only God Forgives” are many. Refn remains a skillfully visual and artistic director, but his writing has much to be desired. If anything, watching this film gave me a new appreciation for “Drive”, which Refn did not write. Now, when I mention “writing”, I must specify that there’s more of a vague plot that Refn has created. The dialogue here is scarce, especially for Gosling’s character. Viewers that were annoyed by Gosling’s silent but cool Driver in “Drive”, will be even more put off by what Refn gives him to work with as the spaced-out Julian. He’s clearly broken and beaten internally, which parallels what physically happens to him over the course of the movie. But he’s too much of a blank slate to even care or hold any interest in what happens to him. I wound up frustrated and tiresome of both Gosling and Julian.

The only actor who’s given anything substantial to chew on is Thomas, who’s manipulative character stands out, almost to the point of cartoonish overacting. But since no other character shows any real sign of life, Thomas’ Crystal winds up being a mesmerizing force of nature. Looking like a Real Housewife and spewing profanity peppered with blatant insulting jabs of incest, she’s a welcome freakshow in a film that offers seldom relief from the long camera takes of hallways and dreamy visions. The actress is given the most material to work with here (it’s still not enough though) and she owns it like a prowling lioness.




Other than Thomas, there is something intriguing about Pansringarm’s work here as well. At first, he’s hard to put a finger on, especially how Refn cuts to the character serenading his officers in a karaoke bar after each time he dispenses his violent acts of justice. But this gets repetitious as the director gives us the same pattern over and over again. Maybe it’s supposed to be funny or maybe even strange, but after a while it just seemed pointless – even if that is the goal it wasn’t enough to keep my interest.

It seems like Refn is attempting to take a shot at themes such as guilt or obsession, maybe even familial dysfunction or possibly insanity. To be honest, the abstractive symbolism and numerous metaphors shroud whatever Refn is getting at with his dark decent into madness. Even that direction comes off as cliché or forced. It’s sad when not even composer Cliff Martinez (who supplied “Drive” with an excellent score) can leave me with anything memorable after watching “Only God Forgives”.

The film is dedicated to Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who’s directed what some call avant-garde films (like “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain”), while others label them acid trips. That dedication is lost on me. It feels more liken Refn is riffing on Kubrick or Lynch here. If that was his exercise then it’s a success, but those directors offered more substance or something more captivating than long takes and trippy sequences. Disjointed and incoherent, “Only God Forgives” fails to resonate.




RATING: *1/2







No comments yet

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: