Only God Forgives

The poetry of violence from Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn

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Only God Forgives

Rating Only God ForgivesOnly God ForgivesOnly God ForgivesOnly God Forgives

Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Yayaying, Tom Burke, Vithaya Pansringarm, Gordon Brown.

Only God Forgives, the second teaming of Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling, is a gorgeously photographed, beautifully violent, cold-as-ice experience that plays with themes and ideals in contemporary Asian cinema. If it’s not a rush of blood to the head, it’s a slow, lingering cut that eventually drains you out; a martial art house meditation. 

If one of its only faults is that it doesn’t match the director’s previous feature, well, few films do. Only God Forgives opened to chilly reviews at this year’s Cannes festival, which isn’t especially surprising; this is more of an experiment a la Valhalla Rising than a marketable star-driven feature, and the sheer level of testosterone and brutal, blood-spurting violence on display is likely to instantly turn off many viewers.

Did I mention the violence? One of the first sequences we’re treated to features a room covered in blood, a dead girl, and man missing most of his face, the end result of a brutal head-smashing a la the elevator scene in Drive or the fire extinguisher sequence in Irreversible. It’s horrific to look at, but painted pretty-as-a-picture by cinematographer Larry Smith.

That man was Billy (Tom Burke), an American member of a drug smuggling syndicate operating in Bangkok. Billy, slightly deranged, had brutally raped and murdered the girl in a hotel room. Police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) leaves Billy alone in the room with the girl’s father, with expected results. 

Billy’s brother Julian (Ryan Gosling), another member of the syndicate, is an empty shell of a man who runs a local fighting center. He tracks down his brother’s killer, only to find that hey, his brother probably deserved to die, and he lets the guy go. 

Gosling, by the way, rarely utters a word while moping through the entire film: it’s an incredibly mannered and even daring performance that gives the character the image of ‘cool’, but none of the substance, the essence of cool that Gosling so effortlessly conveyed in Drive. The character is so barely-there he may have disappeared in his own movie, but it’s Gosling’s portrayal that makes him relevant.  

Kristin Scott Thomas, meanwhile, absolutely steals the show as Crystal, Billy and Julian’s foul-mouthed, ill-tempered, and utterly ruthless mother, who flies to Thailand to exact justice for her son’s murder. Precisely who is on the receiving end of that justice doesn’t seem to matter, but Julian is sure to catch a lot of the blowback. 

The real star of Only God Forgives is Pansringarm, as the Angel of Death cop Chang: he’s merciless and methodical as he slices off hands and through chests and stabs a man with chopsticks to obtain information. He doesn’t represent the law but a higher authority, and won’t stop until some perverse sense of “right” is achieved throughout all the bloodshed. 

Like Drive, Only God Forgives features an extraordinary soundtrack featuring original music by Cliff Martinez; Wanna Fight, the Tron-esque track that plays out during Chang and Julian’s unforgettable one-sided fight sequence is a standout. Pansringarm also gets to croon the haunting Tur Kue Kwam Fun.

Only God Forgives is beautiful, terrifying, and flat-out mesmerizing; I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of it while it unfolded or shortly thereafter, but it slowly grew on me, and after a week remains vivid in my mind. It’s certainly not for everyone, but this is a powerful, potent treatise on revenge and violence, and how justice hasn’t been served until we turn it inward unto ourselves. 

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