Only God Forgives
2013 - 90 minutes
Written and directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Tom Burke,
Yayaying Rhatha Phongam
Never has seedy pretention looked so pretty. While watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives,” I got the feeling that the writer-director was trying to get one over on me. As if dressing up this drab tale of morality and revenge with bright lights, punctuations of graphic violence and a hypnotic score from Cliff Martinez will cause enough distraction to make the audience think they’re experiencing something.
While I was never completely bored during the film, it never totally connected and, most importantly, I never cared about anything. Though it begins with a horrific act that leads to another, that leads to another and so on, there isn’t a sense of building to a final confrontation or any forward momentum.
Events play out as they do in a quasi-spiritual method that feels at times more like a film school project rather than the work of an established filmmaker. I nearly chuckled at the fascination with star Ryan Gosling’s hands – which at one point are not very subtlety tiled to a chair, and at several points are arbitrarily balled into fists.
Gosling plays Julian, who runs a Bangkok fight club that fronts a drug operation with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). Though his character actually has a name in his second collaboration with Refn - after 2011s “Drive,” which I felt was the best film of that year – Gosling has much less dimension here. With only 2 words of dialogue that rise beyond pensive monotone and one facial expression, Gosling is little more than set dressing with the same importance as the copious amount of red light bulbs or Kristin Scott Thomas’s blonde hair dye.
The plot is put in motion when Billy commits an appalling act of violence. Responding veteran Bangkok cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is much more interested in moral justice than upholding the law; instead of arresting Billy, he allows retribution only to then exact a punishment on the vigilante.
Chang’s twisted righteousness and belief in an eye-for-an-eye (or a life-for-a-life-for-an-arm, as it were) brings Julian and Billy’s vitriolic mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to town, where she further bloodies the landscape to get her own revenge.
I think Scott Thomas might give a great performance, but it’s really hard to say because she’s shown in fits and spurts interrupted by meaningless, yet beautifully composed scenes that add nothing to the tale. Her energy and spitefulness feels like it’s from a different, better film – from callously ordering hits on Chang to comparing the size of her sons’ penises.
Crystal has an impression of reality, while her mirror Chang is given status as a mythical creature that robs him of any true menace. He appears as a God-like figure that stalks Julian in his hallucinations of death and dismemberment. Pansringarm has the look and mannerisms of a frightful villain, but it all feels phony. His karaoke singing interludes aren’t scarily ironic, only frustratingly rote.
There is an eventual one-sided fight between Julian and Chang, but there is no context for how or why it came to pass or where it fits in the scale of justice the film pretends to adhere to. A karaoke sing-off would’ve had the same meaning, which is to say not much.
A few scenes approach a David Lynch-esque kind of great, including a bloody interrogation in a Bankok club that begins with a cop stating, “Remember, girls, no matter what happens...keep your eyes closed. And you men, take a good look.” What follows is horrifying, yet beautifully shot and indeed something to look at.
The whole thing is beautiful to listen to with the Cliff Martinez score, his second great work of the year after Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers.” So at least one of his great scores was heard in a great film.
Made with skill that is completely wasted, “Only God Forgives” is an exasperating exercise in style; too pretty to be ignored but too impotent to deserve any meaningful attention.
© 2013 by Blake Crane