Ryan Gosling reteams with his Drive director, Nicolas Winding-Refn, for the ultraviolent revenge thriller Only God Forgives. The result is a beautifully shot, utterly deranged arthouse flick that delivers its narrative punches far too sporadically to match its acts of depraved violence.
Gosling plays another silent type, but the strength is zapped by his domineering mother, Crystal, played with bravado by Kristin Scott Thomas, who flies to Bangkok to tell Gosling’s Julian to avenge his brother’s murder. Problem is, a mentally unhinged Thai cop is involved and Julian actually has a conscience, as evidenced by his unwillingness to follow through on his mom’s orders. But she won’t let that stop her. What follows is an especially brutal, thematically disturbing movie.
Julian’s brother, Billy, rapes and murders a 16 year-old girl. The mother condones it. Chang, the cop played by Vithaya Pansringarm, commits cringe worthy mutilation, and Julian might want to marry his mother. Not exactly a fun, family movie. It’s not until late in the third act that we get a reason for Julian’s mental state, but Chang’s and Crystal’s insanity are left unexplored. What you see and hear is largely what you get. A brooding ambient score from Cliff Martinez and slow tracking shots of red corridors complement the violent imagery and communicate the emotion of the film and its characters to the audience to a point, but what’s under the surface feels unexplored until the third act. Until then, it’s just a beautifully-shot pseudo-horror film where ordinary people are the monsters.
Many filmgoers will check out at the first sign of Julian’s massive Oedipus Complex and it only gets weirder and more incestuous from then on. The finale of the film calls back to an erotic encounter with Julian’s girlfriend, only with a different woman (guess who). And Thomas excels as the manipulative mother of Julian. Her ability to sway her last remaining son is horrifying, as are the consequences.
It should be no surprise that Refn manages to craft a surreal interpretation of modern-day Bangkok soaked in blood and exaggerated color tones. Surrealism has always been an effective tool of his, ever since Bronson (I have not seen his Pusher trilogy and cannot comment on those films), but here something is lacking. With Bronson and Valhalla Rising, Refn managed to stick noticeable allegory and interesting stories into his images, but Forgives lacks that layer. Its story is pretty straightforward, if borderline revolting.
This emptiness and straightforwardness causes the film to be so boring for the first two acts. I go back to Valhalla Rising again (which is a great movie on Netflix if you’re in the mood for some slow, methodical, ultraviolent allegory) because they are both similar in tone and style, but Rising has the subtext going for it. Here, Gosling stares at the camera or at other people while moody synthetic music plays and nothing happens.
The main theme of the film seems to revolve around parenthood. Parents are the driving factors of most of the violence in the movie. Julian’s mother puts out hits and encourages her son to commit murder, the detective is a violent monster who shows compassion to his daughter and her caretaker, and Billy is even killed by another father. And the grotesque violence and scarce dialogue imply that Refn may not have much to say about these awful parents, but he at least has strong feelings about them.
Only God Forgives feels like a filmmaker channeling his most psychotic feelings into a film without corralling them to tell a story with a point. That makes a starkly composed, colorful and memorable film, but it’s not as richly layered as Valhalla Rising, fascinatingly surreal as Bronson, or as effortlessly cool as Drive. It also doesn’t make it that engaging to the audience, even fans of him. I do not consider this a bad film, anything this interesting isn’t a waste of time to watch, but I do wish Refn had given the film a bit more smarts to match the emotional intensity.