After the crossover and award winning success that was Drive, writer and director Nicolas Winding Refn returns with polarising revenge thriller Only God Forgives. Arguably more in line with Valhalla Rising and Bronson than the aforementioned thriller, Only God Forgives is likely to alienate audiences with its fever-dream narrative state, but bewitch them nonetheless with its vivd visual style, lurid tone and Cliff Martinez’ stand-out score.
Julian (Ryan Gosling), a well known drug smuggler and boxing club owner, is living a comfortable and profitable life in Bangkok with his older brother Billy (Tom Burke). That is, however, until Billy is killed on the orders of crooked policeman (Vithaya Pansringarm) after raping and murdering a teenage girl. With his carnal mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) desperate for revenge, Julian’s life takes a turn for the complicated.
Embedded deeply within explicitly dark themes including, but not limited to corruption, sexual deviance, familial intrigue and, perhaps most prominently, vengeance, Only God Forgives is a provocative, atmospheric, alluring and ultimately testing watch – one that’s often too intense for its own merit. The narrative is extremely basic, with Refn far more interested in what’s not said than what is (the dialogue kept to a minimal, used only to add punch to those emotional outbreaks).
It makes for an often seductive and dazzling, yet frustratingly blurred undertaking that’s difficult to remain invested in throughout. There’s no doubting Refn’s skill as a director, and the visuals are as sensational and potent as expected. But when the narrative is as loose as it is, to the point where it feels deliberately done rather than employed purposefully, it becomes tedious and shallow, and even makes the punctuations of extreme violence feel gratuitous due to the shady reasoning behind them.
There’s little logic on display here, and the characters aren’t those that can be easily comprehended, nor liked. Julian is a muted mystery, breaking his silence only with a feral scream that seems out-of-character, while Chang is mere a cliché. Crystal, the ruthless bitch matriarch, is more fleshed out and believable than the others – a mother who refuses to believe her beloved son is the nasty rapist murderer he was. It enables Thomas to own every inch of the film, even when she’s not on screen.
There’s a lot to admire about Only God Forgives, and Refn’s ability to shock, provoke and build tension to an uncomfortable extreme works on a certain level and to a certain extent. But for those expecting something with a little more bite substance-wise, and something that feels more in line with the superb Drive, this isn’t the film for them (most will likely feel shortchanged by the final product). For Only God Forgives is a film to be respected and admired far more than it is one to be enjoyed.