Only God Forgives Review
Expectations can skew any movie experience. Gazing around at the polarized reactions of my film reviewer peers to this film, I opted to go into Only God Forgives as if I knew nothing about it. I forgot that one of my favourite working actors, Ryan Gosling, took top billing. I completely ignored that Nicolas Winding Refn, the man behind my favourite movie of 2011, was calling the shots. I glossed over the fact that the amazing Cliff Martinez was once again providing the score. There were no expectations on my part of this movie being yet another neo-noir crime thriller. I didn’t know what Only God Forgives would be, but I certainly didn’t expect it to be another Drive. Thankfully, by sidestepping the pitfall which everyone else who has seen and critiqued this movie has seemingly fallen into, I walked away from this flick with a smile on my face.
As I alluded to, Only God Forgives is not an 80s-inspired crime thriller. The underworld is still the inciting force of the film, but the framework is functionally that of a classic western set in the Far East with a high-fantasy subtext. Think about that for a second. Instead of viewing Ryan Gosling as The Driver, we have to see him as a cowboy in a modern, oriental setting. Even when they are seen as main characters, cowboys aren’t always heroes. Nor are they paragons of justice.
It’s also important that the title of this film be observed. “Only God Forgives” is an important philosophical concept, which is applied throughout the feature — especially towards the end. It provides a viewpoint towards how we should be viewing the events of the film; if you are not applying a lense of biblical understanding to the perceived roles of God, humanity, and the Devil, you aren’t watching this film correctly. To that effect, those who have already seen Only God Forgives and label it as “senseless violence” clearly don’t understand the film’s premise. I cannot stress this enough, and I don’t care if that comment seems condescending.
In terms of narrative, the course of the film is set in its first ten minutes. Expatriate Julian Thompson (Ryan Gosling) is an American living in Bangkok, Thailand who runs a boxing club as a front for his family’s drug smuggling operations. He’s noted as “a respected figure in the criminal underworld,” but it’s clear that he is numb to most of what happens around him. His brother, Billy, brutally rapes and kills an underage prostitute before surrendering to the Thai police. Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) — known as the “Angel of Vengeance” to those on the streets of Bangkok — allows the girl’s father to beat Billy to death for his crimes, but also takes that man’s hand with a machete for allowing her to prostitute in the first place. Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), the mafia godmother, is called to Thailand to identify Billy’s body and tries to push Julian to seek vengeance for his brother’s death. Being of the perspective that Billy got what was coming to him, Julian refuses and she attempts revenge on her own terms.
Without delving into any plot spoilers, I’d like to at least indicate the roles our three leads (Julian, Crystal, and Chang) have to maintain. Julian is a part of the underworld, but we get the sense that he isn’t exactly happy about it. He’s clearly grown into this society of sin and violence, and only appears to stay out of fealty to his family. He is a flawed man who has regrettably done wrong in the past, but in that he acts as an avatar for humanity. Crystal represents the Devil in a number of ways. She is singlehandedly responsible for the lies, corruption, sexual disturbances, and violence which enwraps her two sons. It’s also heavily implied that she may have even held an incestuous relationship with at least one of them. Crystal seeks death, power, and the propagation of deceit. She is only at her match, or better, when faced head on by Chang. Lt. Chang is a man who actually believes himself to be God, and the film’s violence is best made sensical when the audience understands it as a vengeful God’s justice. If your hands are made dirty with sin, Chang will take them off; if your eyes won’t see what’s good for them, Chang will slice them out; if your throat speaks nothing but lies, Chang will sever it. His officers follow him as if they were his angels, and the populace of Bangkok accept his punishment with reverence. This Devil-Humanity-God relationship is ultimately the focal point of Only God Forgives, but without accepting this dynamic you’d likely write the film off as a pointlessly bloody crime thriller (which so many of my “cinephile” peers were all too quick to do).
Only God Forgives is by no means a perfect film. The pauses that populate almost every scene of dialogue serve as to abridge events, add a surreal element to the plot, and make the dialogue more poignant, but it is a technique done a bit more often than I think it should be. The film is metaphorical to hell, with symbology up the ying-yang, and you may not like the film’s delivery if you aren’t a fan of real-life scenes dipping into the existential. The characters do represent identities or concepts and not actual people; if you’re looking for many of the characters to have development or dialogue, you’ll be disappointed. A lot of the violence will be seen as excessive by mainstream audiences, but the same can be said about Drive. The film’s ending will confuse or enrage if you don’t understand the premise of the film (which, again, I’d argue that many critics do not).
Disregarding the brilliance behind the point that this film was trying to convey, there were several suspenseful sequences which were reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick. There were times where I was on the edge of my seat and had no clue as to where the film would go next. The editing and cinematography are nothing short of masterful. Between excellent blocking and a superb use of lighting effects, I would argue that no other movie this year has been better looking. The performances are all very strong, especially Vithaya Pansringarm as Lt. Chang, and while there wasn’t a terrible amount of dialogue to work with, each role from big to small feels truly authentic.
To be frank, I very much like Only God Forgives. Unlike so many of the loud, actiony, and mindless films we are privy to these days, this one actually challenging the audience to understand what is really being said. I can guarantee that mainstream audiences will hate this film; however, they also hated Drive. If you are a real cinephile who actually appreciates the filmmaking process and you’re looking for a film that is smart and pretty, watch Only God Forgives. Thirty years from now they’ll be hailing it as a classic — yet another film to be vindicated by history.