Only God Forgives
Only God Forgives (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Two brothers run a fight club in Thailand which functions as a cover for the family drug business. After killing a sixteen-year-old prostitute, Billy (Tom Burke) gets beaten to death by the girl’s father. Having received the news of her eldest son’s death, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) flies in and is enraged when she learns that although Julian (Ryan Gosling) had the chance to avenge his brother, he had failed to take the man’s life. Not realizing the complexity of the situation, Crystal commands her men to punish everyone responsible.
No one can take away the fact that “Only God Forgives,” written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, is beautifully photographed, often bathed in a cascade of blues and reds, and there is thought put behind how or when a camera should move in order to underline the manic intensity of an increasingly messy and violent plot. However, the film is, for the most part, a sort of a poetic dirge—eyebrow-raising at its best and somnolent at its worst.
The clash of stoic and hyperbolic acting works. Gosling embodies the former and Thomas the latter; the twisted mother-son relationship is one that I found to be somewhat fascinating. Because Crystal is such a harpy, truly despicable from the moment we meet her checking into a hotel, one wonders if she is the reason Julian has so many issues. On the other hand, because Julian, a full-grown adult, fails to speak his mind when his mother has crossed a line, mistaking subservience for respect, the cycle continues. Their relationship is one that cannot be fixed or untangled because, even though they are complete opposites in many ways, the two are so intractable.
But the picture is not so much a character study. Rather, it is an experiment of mood reflected by the soundtrack and images that are inspired, shocking, trashy, and arresting. In the closing credits, Refn dedicates his work to Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of “Santa sangre,” which so happens to be about a boy who grew up to have serious issues with his mother. Parallels are abound, hands being chopped off among them, and because I loved that film, it was wonderful seeing a director being blatantly inspired by it.
The main difference between “Santa sangre” and “Only God Forgives” is that the former commands control with its images, feelings, and plot during its entire duration. With the latter, I caught myself vacillating between being genuinely interested and not caring. The middle section is a trial to sit through when one craves to be shown something new. Another parallel involves both pictures containing almost dream-like sequences. However, Refn’s work brings up questions that are really not that worth answering.
I believe the picture has artistic merit. I found about half of its content to be quite daring and in some scenes I found myself wishing that more directors were willing to take a chance as Refn does here. Not all of them work but the wonderful thing about movies that push to make a creative leap is that they demand to be seen more than once.