PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Film

'Only God Forgives', Not this Fascinating Film's Director

Refn seems to take his title seriously. Not even he will let the audience off the hook by dumbing down the more disturbing aspects of his movie.


Only God Forgives

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Ratha Phongam, Tom Burke
Rated: R
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-07-19 (General release)
Trailer

David Lynch must be laughing. If he had created something like Only God Forgives, substituting his own quirky casting for the rather staid choices made by actual director Nicolas Winding Refn, he would have walked away from Cannes 2013 with yet another Palme d'Or, another notch in his already sizeable artistic belt, and the kind of critical appreciation that only comes when a proven auteur once again establishes his creative credentials. No one would be arguing over the amount of bloodshed. The nihilistic, almost inhuman tone of the narrative wouldn't be debated, and the occasional lapses into dream logic and inappropriate (but still funny) humor would be offset by his always unique sensibilities.

Instead, it was the man behind Bronson, Valhalla Rising, and Drive who crafted this descent into a gory Bangkok Hell, and as a result, Only God Forgives has issues. Not many, mind you, no matter what the naysayers contend. This is a deliberate movie, a tone poem set inside a recognizable noir filled with neon backdrops, saturated colors, and endless moments of moody introspection. There is very little dialogue offered, most conversations only necessitated to offer exposition or explanation. Indeed, Refn spells out everything you need to know in careful suggestion, from a glance or a nod to an innocent hug held a bit too long, or a sigh where something even less significant would keep the secret.

The simple story revolves around two brothers - Julian (Ryan Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke) - living in Bangkok and dealing drugs. The former runs a boxing club as a front, while the latter loves to scour the local whorehouses for underage sex. One of his trysts turns deadly and Billy is made to pay by a corrupt police official (Vithaya Pansringarm) who meters out punishment with a sneer and a sword. The boys' mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) arrives in Thailand to claim her son's body and it is soon obvious that she wants revenge. When Julian appears ineffectual, she hires some outside heavies to do her dirty work. Naturally, her plans backfire and soon there is a standoff between our evil lawman and the beleaguered brother left behind.

That's it. That's all there is to Only God Forgives. Billy rapes and kills an adolescent girl, her father beats him to death with a board, the nefarious cop cuts off the grief stricken dad's hand, and then when Crystal shows up, she has the injured man murdered. We soon learn of a lewd connection between this lady and her offspring, Julian tries to show his mother that he's changed (he even has an "entertainer" girlfriend) and the official nicknamed The Angel of Death is targeted for termination. When this persistent policeman discovers the plot, he goes after the angry Americans and, as usual, blood flows. The ending offers up no redemption and even less resolution while we are stuck contemplating the final shots, and even then, Only God Forgive continues to hide its meaning.

We've seen things like this before - the legal actually more crooked than the criminal, the loner lost in the insularity of his own unspoken predicament, the domineering bitch queen matriarch who thinks she controls things, and luminous local color that's like fluorescent ice cream inside an expressionist's paint box. Refn is not aiming to make this material new. Instead, he's hoping his spin will be different enough to turn the recognizable into something revelatory...and he almost does. You can tell that every shot was carefully planned out, that the backdrop and lighting scheme were designed to emphasize certain subtexts and themes that only filmmaker could fathom. There is a Kubrickian feel to the framing, Refn making sure that everything is just so before barreling on to the next bit of business.

Indeed, Only God Forgives often plays like the opening of Lost Highway as filtered through a sexless Eyes Wide Shut. Violence is the main focus here, not available Asian skin, and it's refreshing that every character isn't accompanied by some slag hanging off him like a human drape. Instead, Julian clearly wants to make a connection with a "dancer" named Mai (Ratha Phongam) though his prickly nature seems to countermand any real caring and The Angel of Death seems truly Hellbent on keeping the females in his sphere of influence pure and untouched. There's a telling moment when the police break into a debutante like ball to 'question' a suspect. Before the torture begins, one of the officers admonishes the ladies to "close their eyes" as a way to avoid the horrors to come. The men are told otherwise.

Nor is this a movie about traditional brutality. Sure, Julian and his official nemesis duke it out in a rather uneven match (our American is lacking in the necessary skills) but for the most part, boxing is a MacGuffin here, a front for other, more devious business. Drugs also get little play. We see a deal go down early, and Crystal cons a hitman into helping her with the promise of "five kilos of blow," but that's all. Instead, we are supposed to become intoxicated with other aspects of this insular world. In fact, the traditional elements that draw us to this kind of genre material are all but missing. The killings are nasty and unforgiving. There is no joy or glorification in the carnage. Instead, Refn seems to take his title seriously. Not even he will let the audience off the hook by dumbing down the more disturbing aspects of his movie.

As for the acting, it's easy to see who's the real centerpiece here. While Gosling has got the non-blinking stare down pat, it's his craven Cruella De Vil of a mother, Ms. Thomas, who steals the show. She's blond and bimbo-ed out, toned like an aging diva who knows her time is up. She speaks like a sailor without any real compassion and her crocodile tears always end up giving her away. There is a hint that Crystal has been horribly inappropriate with her boys, in ways that remain elusive, and yet it's clear that they care about her. Even Julian's reason for being in Bangkok explains a lot about their link. In fact, the movie could use more of this. Without a strong central premise - outside of revenge - we struggle to stay focused.

Still, Only God Forgives is a hazy, harrowing, successful experiment in style. At only 90 brief minutes, it makes its point and then quickly departs the scene. If it has a main flaw (and there are several minor ones along the way), it's that there's really no big picture pronouncement here. Julian's journey isn't one fraught with greater meaning. In some ways, it's a bad guy getting his just desserts from someone more evil. On the other hand, you cannot deny the movie it's mesmerizing look and feel. A couple of past masters may complain, but for the most part, this is a cinematic compliment, not an outright rip-off. In the end, we're engaged, if then left a bit empty.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.