Only God Forgives


Release: Friday, July 19, 2013 (limited)


Ah, but does He forgive a movie like this?

Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling again team up to put forth another noir-rich effort that skimps on dialogue — only this time it’s one that has left audiences scratching their heads rather than thoughtfully rubbing their chins.

To be fair, it’s difficult for lightning to strike twice in the same spot. Wait, does it? It’s evident Refn was reaching back again for the same kinds of restrictions on your traditional film delivery that made his 2011 effort such a success. It’s also easy to see why he would try to do such a thing again. The lack of dialogue in his recent movies has been intentionally drawing the focus away from what’s being said and more towards what characters and situations are doing, representing. How they are moving, physically, through a story. Refn has hoped that the same approach would yield even greater results if his technique is utilized to an even more extreme degree. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Lightning does not hit the same tree twice, it seems.

Only God Forgives features good-looking Gosling as the mysterious Muay-Thai boxing club owner named Julian, an American ex-pat who’s even more inept at conversing than a nun. When his brother Billy (Tom Burke) is brutally murdered, Satan the pair’s mother arrives on the scene in Bangkok, flying in from London to identify whether it is indeed her firstborn’s body or not.

Kristin Scott Thomas is intended to be the film’s most complex character, simultaneously embodying evil as fully as a person can without sprouting horns, while ultimately remaining fiercely defensive of her baby boys. And as generously as I can possibly be in my — nay, any — defense of this film, Thomas delivers quite the performance. She uses her still-living son as bait to try and protect herself from what she knows will be certain, horrible death at the hands of a corrupt vigilante cop, named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

The rest of the characters are intended to be multi-layered as well; however, most of them end up being painted in the same neon blues and reds as the cinematography is bathed in. If you will, let the red represent motivation (revenge) and the blue the cold, hateful attitudes possessed by each character. Julian is virtually wordless, which proves to be nothing but frustrating and next-to-impossible to identify with, while his enemy, Chang is equally hostile, albeit for slightly different reasons. One might be able to understand his quietness more than Julian’s.

Refn renders some of humanity’s darkest moments of depravity using the most minimalist techniques. There’s barely a script because words mean nothing; actions and non-actions are meant to represent the difference between life and death. Long, unbroken shots of people staring are meant to generate tension. While the silence that permeates each and every neon-lit scene will undoubtedly be excruciating to most viewers, its a method Refn deliberately employs to emphasize a third-party presence to these most grim of proceedings.

Despite all of this sounding like its in defense of his new film, these are the best things that can be said about Only God Forgives. There are concepts Refn is reaching for here that he ultimately misses, sometimes just barely, other times by a mile. Instead of tension being built up throughout the movie’s slowgoing, silent periods a thick air of frustration descends, because we have no reference point to anything in the story. The characters are introduced in a confusing manner — despite the film’s scenes being filmed in chronological order — and a severe lack of anything being stated (in words) it’s oftentimes hard to understand what’s happening in a given scene.

In these instances it seems like it would be highly advantageous to be a Mind Reader.

It’s clear Refn is trying to give audiences a challenge here, not only in the fiercely defiant way he’s going against “traditional” storytelling, but in his usage of some seriously graphic violence. And to me, it’s not clear right now whether this film got booed at Cannes because of this factor or its sheer ambiguity. My guess its a combination of both that makes this film a particularly difficult work of art to ‘like,’ necessarily. If Drive was considered polarizing, Only God Forgives is what that film wanted to be when it grew up. Refn seemingly is one-upping himself in terms of what he thinks modern audiences are willing to accept before completely giving up entirely on the prospect. Unfortunately for him, this ends up occurring far earlier than the ending credits.

This film is plagued by several issues, but the one that I could not get over at all was it’s inability to explain anything. Black eyes, broken hearts and corrupted consciences are one thing (look to things like Taken, Saving Private Ryan, and There Will Be Blood for exemplary moments of all three), and then there’s just obnoxious. Only God Forgives and it’s complex story exists somewhere even outside of the latter, as it insists on being as detestable, abstract and anti-establishment as possible for as long as possible. Quite frankly I grew tired of the gimmick halfway through and I sat through the rest in an effort to be as respectful as I could to both director and actor.

The rest is as forgettable as the story is nonsensical, and moreover, uninspired.


1-5Recommendation: Only God Forgives will not cater to any one’s needs — that’s not its purpose for existing. The actual, true purpose? That answer we never arrive at. This is a product best described as experimental. At its worst? Well, there are some choice words I could implement here, but I really would rather not, because. . . well, you already get the idea. A missed opportunity, for sure. The future will be interesting just for the sake of seeing if these two ever make a film together again.

Rated: R (for really, Ryan Gosling? Really?)

Running Time: 89 mins.

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23 thoughts on “Only God Forgives

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  4. Ah, so you’re in the ‘dislike’ camp 🙂 I actually really liked this but it’s one of those films where I simply cannot argue with people who didn’t like it. I can definitely see why it’s not for everyone but I really bought into it. Not completely, but enough.


    • Cheers. Glad someone else could! It gives the film a tad more credibility. I also kind of appreciate its existence because it has divided the community so harshly. Those who like it, REALLY like it. And those who don’t, well. . . you’ve already gotten the idea. 😛


  5. “Ah, but does He forgive a movie like this?” – this film is unforgivable. It was awful, don’t care how many people get onto me about it. Each to their own, but this didn’t impress me at all, and I really wanted to like it…


    • I hear that sentiment. That’s exactly where I stand really. I love the actor, the director caught me attention two years ago, and I actually thought the corrupt cop character to be pretty badass. But the entire film was a disaster to me. It was so painfully awkward and quiet. I’m glad we’re on the same page. . yet again!! 😀


      • Man, I really wanted this film to work, and visually it was pretty to look at, but in terms of content and story it just fell flat, and I don’t CARE how much symbolism, etc was supposed to be hidden in it. It was overambitious and not cool. That dinner made me squirm! See? We get each other hehe! 😀


    • It’s good news not everyone hates it. I wanted to love this, and there were certainly a few scenes that surprised me and I could see what Refn was trying to do, but overall I think it was just too messy. Maybe it’s one of those that does need several viewings but I’m also not keen on the violence that I just saw, either. hahah i don’t say that very often with films. 😛


  6. Very strange flick, however, that’s what I came to expect with something of Refn’s own delight, so I can’t say I was utterly surprised or pissed off. Good review Tom.


    • That’s a good way to be. I dug his style with Drive but I’m not all that familiar with his style in general, so maybe I need to check some more of his stuff out. THis was just too far out for me to handle. Thanks!


    • . . .I feel like there’s another part to this message, but I can’t be sure. All I have to recommend to you is be prepared for something. . . er, different. haha!


      • Sorry. Took even me a moment to remember what I was saying, so it is certainly a confusing comment. My bad.

        It was a continuation of your last line. You said you were interested to see if Gosling and Refn would make another film together. I was saying I’d be interested in seeing if the next one is actually any good, because this one most certainly isn’t. (As I commented in Heath in my own review.)


      • lol you’re fine. that was really a funny sequence of messages. Yeah, i wanted to get into this but I ultimately decided that it was just, too. . . weird. In the same way Primer was pretty experimental, I think this one was to an even less successful degree. Hopefully if Refn-Gosling get together again, that film WILL be good, indeed.


  7. Sorry to hear that this didn’t work for you Tom. It didn’t entirely for me but I still took many positives from it. I think Refn was certainly discarding any form of narrative in favour of symbolism and metaphor. It took me a couple of viewings to appreciate this about it but I completely understand some not liking it at all. Good write-up buddy.


    • Thanks Mark, yes I recall your review was certainly more open to the film and in all honesty that’s what put me over the top in thinking whether or not to see this. Most all other reviews have denounced the team of Gosling and Refn by now haha! This was just too obtuse for me, but I’m glad you could see some positives in it. There were one or two really good scenes here but not much else for me. . .


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