For all it has to offer, or not offer, Only God Forgives will not be accused of lacking in style. If we can all agree on one thing, it’s that this is a movie with a distinct style. The cinematography is jarring. Reds and blues are the frequent colors of choice for the lighting. Lengthy shots of people staring — just staring — are frequent. A few brutal depictions of violence pop up. Dialogue isn’t used as a crutch to convey emotions — in fact, there’s little dialogue at all.
A film like this is basically designed to polarize audiences. Some will see it as a vapid movie with little more to it than a Michael Bay picture — all style, no substance. Characters are less people and more metaphor, although what they represent is up for debate — if they actually represent anything. Characters like this are not relatable. It’s hard to invest in Only God Forgives. Others will look deeper and see things that the earlier group won’t. You can look deep into anything and find things that either weren’t intended or aren’t really there — or maybe they are. Debates with movies like these are fun to listen to, even if they’re not the greatest to participate in.
The film stars Ryan Gosling, who teams up with director Nicolas Winding Refn for the second time — the first being with Drive. Here, Gosling plays a drug smuggler, Julian, in Thailand who uses a Muay Thai club as a front. He has a brother, Billy, who is killed by the father of an underage prostitute whom Billy raped and killed. The boys’ mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas), arrives to collect her son’s body and convince Julian to enact revenge on the man who killed her son. Her favorite son. The son with a large penis.
We know this because that’s one of the “important” things we’re told in the sparse amount of dialogue the film contains. Crystal mentions that at a dinner with Julian and a prostitute (Rhatha Phongam) Julian hires to be his girlfriend. Julian responds with silence. No insults in the film are retorted. What a world these characters inhabit.
Of course, that comment sets up a later scene, in which Julian literally enters his mother’s womb. He has an Oedipus complex, it would seem. Why? Maybe childhood abuse. Maybe for no reason other than Refn thought it would be fun and give those looking for more depth something to chew on. Maybe less of a practical reason and more of one that you’ll only understand if you watch the film a couple of times … or have an Oedipus complex yourself. I wouldn’t pretend to know.
Only God Forgives also has a police officer, Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who as far as I can tell is the moral arbitrator of Thailand. After Billy kills the underage prostitute, it is Chang who detains Billy and allows the father a chance at revenge. After the father is done with Billy’s body, Chang cuts off one of the father’s hands for allowing his daughter — and the other, not-dead daughters he still has — to enter the sex trade in the first place. Is he God? Or God’s agent? Or just some guy?
Maybe the film is about revenge or its futility. Or judgment. Or something else entirely. It’s hard to pin down, in large part because it feels very disjointed and is unlike most of the movies that you’ll see. It sometimes transitions to new scenes without telling you. There are hallucinations and dreams that sometimes pop in and out during the middle of a scene. The lack of dialogue or proper motivation doesn’t help. There’s more to these characters than we are given, and we have to try to figure them out without a lot of aid.
The movie is slow. It has long sections of silence. Characters stare out into the distance for extended sequences. There are spurts of violence that feel very graphic when they show up. Thailand is depicted as a neon nightmare. Refn’s artistic style is on full display — and that might be the problem. His aim to be artistic overpowers anything it might have to say. What’s left is a film that has trace elements of purpose but its attempt to deliver a certain look means it’s too difficult for those elements to come together and make a solid point.
In Drive, Ryan Gosling said very little and delivered a solid performance. He was driven by something specific and we could understand what that was. Here, he’s a drug smuggler and is maybe falling in love and also wants to sleep with his mother — but there’s no real connection to any of that. These elements exist but the actor doesn’t connect with any of them. Mostly, he stares blankly just off-camera. Kristin Scott Thomas acts as his antithesis, hamming it up to great effect. As a mediator, Vithaya Pansringarm leaves more of an impression than he had any right to.
Only God Forgives is a film that’s going to be talked about for a long time. If you watch it, I don’t think you’re going to be able to easily forget what you saw. What’s it about? I don’t know. The film rarely helps you try to figure out what it wants to say. It’s stylistic but maybe to a fault. Some people will connect the dots — whether they exist or not — while others will see it as a stylistic but vapid film. I fall more in the latter category, but I’d be interested to explore it more, possibly on a second watch after reading some more in-depth discussions about it.