Only God Forgives
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn (screenplay)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm and Tom Burke
Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow up to my favorite film of 2011, Drive, will manage to kill whatever good mood you have that day. This time around, rather than sunny California, Winding Refn takes us to what I can only assume is Hell’s Indochinese district. Only one thing happens here: abuse.
The movie starts with Muay Thai boxers trading blows, and it’s the most civil interaction you’ll see from here on out. From a stadium seat view, we descend slowly, with all wrapped in an orange glow. Julian (Ryan Gosling) sits in the stands, his expression impenetrable. He exchanges a nod from behind the caged bleachers to the only other white men in the gym. They’re down on the floor, likely exchanging some drugs. Either way this is more than a gym. Suddenly we see hands slowly closing to fists, then Julian revealed only by gold bands of light striped across his face. His brother Billy, drunk, bathed in bands of red light, asks if Julian is ready to meet the Devil.
Billy’s in a brothel by himself a little while later. “I wanna fuck a 14-year-old girl.” he says. Apparently they’re out of stock. Billy demands the attendant go home and get his daughter. Before your mind can process the filth of what he said, Billy’s already smashed the attendant’s head with a bottle and moved on to brutalizing one of the escorts. Eventually he finds a 16-year-old hooker. He kills her. Everyone in this movie is just like Billy.
He pays for his sins shortly thereafter, in a butchering orchestrated by the vainglorious police chief Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). He doesn’t wear a uniform, and I’m fairly certain he wears the same outfit in every scene. Billy’s death prompts the return of him and his brother Julian’s incestuous mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who’s foulness is in good company. The depths of her depravity are made clear in her dinner table diatribe about how massive Billy’s cock was compared to his brother Julian’s. Crystal ultimately sparks the war with Chang that leaves the streets of Bangkok littered in human entrails. Julian is the only character in the movie who doesn’t like living in Hell’s Indochina neighborhood, and one could argue he deserves a better lot in life; perhaps the Orange Country of eternal hellfire and damnation.
The scenes of heinous, exploitative and senseless violence are unrelenting; served with a hefty side of rape, incest and general cruelty. Shots are tight and disorienting, awash in deep unnatural hues, with dense backdrops that suffocate. We rarely see the sun, never see the exits and rarely know where we are or how we got there. Several times executions shift into slow motion and diegetic sounds fade away; we watch victims beg for mercy but don’t hear their pleas, then we see them die. The entire movie is an unending nightmare filled with stunning images with Kubrickian symmetry painted in deep, dark primary colors. It mesmerizes in between acts of sadism. They are beautiful at first, but the disorientation and violence become too much. With images of suffering and death always lingering, the seconds creep by agonizingly, because you just want it to be over.
I’ve never seen anything like it, which makes it all the more unfortunate that this movie sucks. It’s almost exclusively an exercise in style and atmosphere. Refn’s attempts to put some sort of rhyme or reason to the whole thing are few and half hearted, substance here is clearly not his priority. I was also disappointed by Gosling, who said so much without saying anything in Drive, but here it feels more like you’re watching him wait in line at a gas station. In fact the only performance I liked was Vithaya Pansringarm. The joy hidden behind his self-righteous butchering was so subtle it almost felt as though you were sensing it in him rather than seeing it on his face.
Like his character, Only God Forgives will torture you and give you nothing in return; no substance or insight. If you want to watch something that will ruin your day and make you feel dirty I suggest Gaspar Noe’s sickening but thought-provoking film I Stand Alone. At least you’ll come away disgusted with something to think about instead of just plain disgusted.