Film review: ONLY GOD FORGIVES, from Built For Speed

The Australian release of Only God Forgives has been preceded by much hype and vitriol claiming it to be one of the worst and most hideously violent films of recent times.  Fortunately, it’s neither of these things. It’s certainly not for all tastes and like many of Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn’s films, seems like an exercise in style over substance and a tricked up 80’s video-nasty but it’s far from a turkey.  Also, while there are moments of extreme violence with limbs being lopped off and pointy objects inserted in ear holes, it’s far less violent and sickening than movies such as Saw, Irreversible and Jack the Giant Slayer.

Only God Forgives is like a mutant cousin to Refn’s Drive with Ryan Gosling again playing an emotionless, expressionless and violent criminal. In Drive he had a semblance of heroism but here he’s like some sort of amoral robot.  Gosling’s character, Julian, runs a Muay Thai academy and drug dealing operation in Bangkok with his brother Billy (Tom Burke).  When Billy kills a young woman this triggers a cycle of revenge leading to a brutal confrontation between Julian and a relentless and extremely dangerous cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

Those hoping for a clear narrative and character arcs will find this film infuriating as it simply floats from one violent episode to another seemingly with no other purpose than to show the characters’ brutality. While the film’s obtuseness may enrage many viewers, few will deny the visual artistry at play. Refn crafts remarkable images of an eerie nightmare world full of creepy brothels, strange nightclubs, dark, threatening streets and maze-like rooms with blood red walls festooned in sinister-looking dragon motifs.

Although confronting, Refn’s directorial style is highly derivative of other auteurs. He mixes the precise symmetrical framing of Kubrick with surreal touches reminiscent of Jodorowsky, violent outbursts that recall Gaspar Noe and lurid production design, ominous music and pervasive weirdness that owe a huge debt to David Lynch. He even has a singing sadist in this film just like Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet.  Refn also delights in sexually perverse penetration imagery worthy of David Cronenberg.

While the film’s production design is exquisite and its mood hypnotic, the performances are heavily flawed.  Gosling goes one better than Derek Zoolander here as he has no facial expression.  This might suit his immoral character at first but it soon becomes comical.  Because it’s difficult to form any sort of personal connection to his character, the events that befall him have no emotional impact.  Equally expressionless is Chang although as a kind of modern day samurai killing-machine, his stoic persona seems more appropriate.  The film’s other lead Kristin Scott Thomas delivers an uneven performance as Julian’s evil, foul-mouthed, platinum blonde, gangster boss Mother; at times she’s genuinely menacing but in some scenes she seems unsure of how to portray the character.

Only God Forgives will bitterly divide critics and audiences, some will see it as the confronting vision of contemporary cinema’s bravest enfant terrible while others will see it as pretentious crap. In this reviewer’s opinion it’s a fascinating, artfully made but derivative and irritatingly incomplete film.


Nick’s rating: Two and a half stars.

Classification: MA 15+.

Director(s): Nicolas Winding Refn.

Release date: 18th July 2013

Running time: 90 mins.


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