It’s hard to know how to critique this film, because I honestly could have spent the rest of the day in the theater rewatching this and still would have been unable to make heads or tails of it. I’m not sure that Refn meant for me to feel simply one way or the other though.
With it’s revenge logline and reteaming of Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling, many people will see the trailer and think “Drive 2”. This film is almost nothing like Drive. If we’re going to compare it to any of Refn’s previous work, it would sit more beside Fear X and Valhalla Rising. It’s dark, aesthetically off-putting and it’s plot is not what drives the film forward. This film is also far more violent than Drive was, probably Refn’s most violent and gory(which is saying something given the man gave us the scene in Pusher 3 where a man’s intestines are pushed down a garbage disposal). If you had trouble during the head-stomping scene in Drive, then you will certainly pass out multiple times during Only God Forgives.
The plot revolves around Julian(Gosling) who runs a Muy Thai kickboxing club, but is really a drug-runner for his family. His brother Billy(Tom Burke) rapes and murders a 16 year old girl, which brings Chang(Vithaya Pansringarm), a seemingly retired cop who still runs things in the force to order the death of Billy. His death brings Julian’s mother Crystal(Kristin Scott Thomas) from America and she orders Julian to exact revenge on Chang and others involved, something he is reluctant to do.
Gosling, while having even less amount of lines this time around than his last collaboration with Refn(I literally counted only about 25 lines for Julian), in fact pretty much Road Warrior levels of main character dialogue(Mel Gibson only had 16 lines in that film), he is still a commanding presence on screen. Pansringarm is equally as commanding, having very little dialogue as well. Kristin Scott Thomas however is the standout as the bitchy mother from hell with a mouth like a sailor. It’s possible, depending on the weather come Oscar season, she may have some buzz.
Cliff Martinez crafts an arresting and haunting score, his 2nd collaboration with Refn. It’s influences range from Wagner to Thai to Electronica to Bernard Herrmann. It’s quite a triumph of a score, complimenting every scene it accompanies, and I feel it’s Martinez’s most accomplished work to date.
While it would be easy to write this film off as self-indulgent, Refn’s self-indulgent films are never that simple. Because when most directors are self-indulgent(cough cough Sofia Coppola), their films suffer by becoming incredibly boring. Refn still manages to hold the audience with his arresting visuals and direction, never unsure of himself. Whether or not you like the film, you won’t soon forget it as Refn still crafts it uncompromisingly. The fight scene between Julian and Chang is absolutely incredible to witness.
What does hurt the film though is the fact we never get to go deeper with most of the characters, making their motivations unclear, causing a disengagement between the audience and the film itself. In fact, I’m not even sure what Yayaying’s character Mai served to the film at all.
Only God Forgives is a feverish nightmare of spiritual undertones and violence. Gosling himself probably gave this film the best introduction in an interview when he stated “It’s like a drug. You’ll either have a bad trip or a good trip.” I’m not sure what type of trip I had, but it was certainly a memorable one. And almost any question you may have while watching regarding the tone and style will be answered when the credits start with “For Alejandro Jodorowsky”.