Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Main Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Tom Burke, Rhatha Phongam.
Set in the dark streets of downtown Bangkok, Only God Forgives tells the story of a brother’s revenge after his mother’s favourite son is brutally murdered. The beginning of the film is very metaphorical, with shots of swinging samurai swords in the dark accompanied by the film’s main protagonist Julian (Ryan Gosling) walking through a Thai boys boxing club. The first few scenes are very reminiscent of Winding Refn’s most famous film Drive also starring Gosling, who while saying very little in that film, seems to say even less in this.
The viewer in then thrown into a heavily neon-soaked world of blood and violence. The story begins to follow Julian’s brother Billy (Tom Burke), who demonstrates his ruthless insanity by attacking a room of prostitutes before walking to a brothel and murdering a young woman. The next few scenes can only be described as horrific, as Billy meets a gruesome end at the hands of the girl’s father, and sets the mood for the rest of the film. The viewers are introduced to the brothers’ mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) who arrives from the USA to collect her son’s body, and her enemy Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who set up the murder of Billy after imprisoning him, and carries the samurai sword that appears throughout the film sometimes as a metaphor, and sometimes to add to the level of gore.
The films then progresses into following Julian on his quest for revenge, who says almost nothing at all in the process and carries the same blank, unexpressive face that fans of Drive would recognise. Prostitution features heavily throughout the film, with Gosling’s character having a unique relationship with his ‘favourite’ girl Mai (Rhatha Phongam) and asking her to act as his girlfriend in front of his incredibly opinionated mother. Gosling’s character seems sexually detached from Mai, and appears to enjoy her company more than anything.
The film seems ‘arty’ for art’s sake, with scenes crisscrossing each other as if they’d been cut up by Chang’s sword and then pieced back together in the wrong order. The themes of violence and sex are heavy throughout the film, but shown in a beautiful way in which Winding Refn seems to be the master of. Describing it as surreal would be an understatement, as the film is filled with awkward silences, long stares, panning shots down empty corridors and strong colours courtesy of cinematographer Larry Smith. While it can be compared to Drive in a handful of ways, it really doesn’t deserve to be.
Audiences and reviewers alike are heavily divided on this film, with some saying it’s meaningless and others saying it’s a masterpiece. If you’re interested in this film because of its cast you may need to reconsider, or at least prepare yourself to be disappointed. The performance from Scott Thomas is unlike anything the actress has done before, but is still brilliant. Crystal’s command over her son is obvious from the beginning, with it being apparent that Billy was her favourite without sparing the subtleties. Julian is respectful and adoring of his mother, but at the same time terrified of her. Their relationship is undoubtedly unique verging on controversial, which adds to the emotional discomfort Gosling’s character experiences throughout.
I am divided on this film. I can appreciate how it looks and how it flows being a fan of Winding Refn’s work, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it. It is a masterpiece in its own right, but in a very select few circles. Visually it’ll blow you away, but its high levels of blood, violence and soft pornography may put you off. If you’re prepared for this and you’re in the right mindset then you’ll most likely enjoy it, but if you’re looking for some light entertainment on a sunday evening then it’s not for you. It’ll definitely leave you speechless whoever you are.
Verdict: Visually brilliant, but definitely not for everyone.