My Thoughts on Only God Forgives

OnlyGodForgives Ryan Gosling reunites with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn for the Bangkok-set crime thriller Only God Forgives.  Julian Thompson (Gosling) is an American expat, who is running a Bangkok boxing club, which is a front for a drug-smuggling operation.  His older brother Billy (Tom Burke) brutally rapes and kills an underage prostitute and is in turn killed by the girl’s father, under the direction of corrupt police Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).  Billy’s death brings Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to Thailand and she wants vengeance on those responsible for her oldest son’s death.  So begins this journey into Bangkok’s criminal underworld. Where do I begin in talking about Only God Forgives?  Probably the most obvious place to start is the plot of the film, which takes style over substance to the extreme.  There isn’t really all that much to the overall story of the film, much of which I covered in the above summary.  In addition, much of the film featured a red-hued and neon lighting scheme, to the point where it looked weird whenever it was not present.  Focusing on style over substance isn’t always a bad thing, however Only God Forgives is very much an art film under the guise of a genre picture.  For a film with such a simple story, the plot moves along at a snail’s pace, with very little actual action.  When the film does get violent, it is not the “fun” violence that you will see in most genre pictures.  In fact, there’s an extreme torture scene in Only God Forgives that is particularly hard to watch and it is quite apparent that this film is not meant to be mindless entertainment. There’s also the fact that there is really no person to root for in this film.  The film’s villain Lieutenant Chang is the perpetrator of most of the disturbing violence in the film, however the protagonists are not much better.  Kristin Scott Thomas’ Crystal is such a vile and unlikeable character, that you would rather see her dead than see her satisfy her need for vengeance.  Because of his conflicted morality over the situation, his brother DID rape and murder a girl you know, Julian is slightly more sympathetic.  However, even he is not an angel and he does some unlikeable acts throughout the film. The signature scene of Only God Forgives is undoubtedly the moment Julian comes face-to-face with Lieutenant Chang for a hand-to-hand fistfight.  The scene, which isn’t even really the film’s climax, lasts no more than five minutes.  However, I have to say that they are a very engaging and enjoyable five minutes.  This scene is where the style over the substance truly works, especially when it comes to the brooding synthesizer-based score.  However, this scene is also quite frustrating, since it demonstrated how awesome a film Only God Forgives could have been, if only Nicolas Winding Refn went in a more crowd-pleasing direction. My overall disappointment in Only God Forgives is compounded by the fact that I very much enjoyed Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous film Drive.  However, I have to say that Drive had a much more developed story and likeable characters.  Sure, it also has extreme violence, however it was much more palatable than what’s featured in Only God Forgives.  Of course, you can also argue that Only God Forgives probably has some artistic merits.  I know for sure that there were plenty of Oedipal metaphors involving Chrystal’s relationship with Julian.  However, at the end of the day, it was not really the film that I was expecting to see.4 | DISAPPOINTED