Only God Forgives is a hypnotic, surreal, and dream-like film. Much like Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Only God Forgives moves at a slow pace with steady camera work and engrossing imagery. Refn’s previous film, Drive (2011), is an art film that is more accessible to the casual film goer. However, it should be established right now that Drive is not like Only God Forgives. The only similarities I can see besides the lead actor and director are the film’s style of music, camera work, and love for neon lights and violence. Only God Forgives feels like Drive but in a world of hyper realism and surrealism.
Only God Forgives presents us with a world of Bangkok, Thailand where logic and closure are never fully provided. Characters don’t explain their actions and experience dream-like fugues. Interpretations of the film’s final moments will range, because the film provides little explanation to many of the character’s actions. Only God Forgives seems primarily focused on creating a dream-like atmosphere that is truly enthralling. It was a real pleasure to view a film that tosses logical plot and basic character development to the side in order to create a neon and blood-splattered universe that is like none other.
The film’s story concerns what happens when Julian’s (Ryan Gosling) brother is murdered. Julian’s mom, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), comes to town and demands retribution for her son’s death. A cop involved in the killing, Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), then becomes the target of Crystal’s assassins. To divulge any more plot would be to give away too much of the film. Only God Forgives is meant to unfold at a slow and unsteady pace that makes you wonder what will happen next.
Not one character in the film is in the right either. The film’s three lead actors are all impressive. Ryan Gosling plays Julian as a very quiet and collected gangster. He seems to be the most morally right of all of the characters in the film. One can conclude this based on his actions. He hardly speaks in the film, only when absolutely necessary. This is definitely the most unique and artistic of all of the films that Ryan Gosling has ever been in. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Julian’s horrid mom. Of all of the characters in the movie, Crystal is definitely the most vile and vulgar. Without giving too much away though, I would say that Thomas’ performance is probably the most notable performance in the film. And then we have Vithaya Pansringarm. I have never seen him in a film before and found him to be quite a good actor. Vithaya does a great job at being the stoic and silent law giver in the film. Knowing that Lt. Chang is a cop though is truly frightening.
Only God Forgives racks up the violence from Refn’s previous film. Skulls are bashed open, rib cages are sliced open, eyes are gouged, and arms are sliced off. There came a point where even I squirmed at the film’s violence. One torture scene in the film was especially intense. Expect for me to fast forward through that sequence the next time I watch this film. In terms of action, there is a notable shootout and fist fight. Both are great scenes that contain a whole lot of build up. Refn’s Drive treated violence just the same. Intense build up to violence can be more affective than violence itself.
Overall, I viewed Only God Forgives as a very hypnotic experience. If you want an engrossing plot and story, this is not the film for you. The film exists in a world of hyper realism. Because of that, Only God Forgives becomes a very sensory viewing experience. Good performances, solid action editing, tight camera work, and hypnotic music make the film a real work of art. The graphic nature of the violence is quite intense and viewers should prepare themselves. Otherwise, fans of Refn, Alejandro Jodorworsky, and art house cinema should proceed with no hesitance.
Only God Forgives (2013) directed by Nicholas Winding Refn