Weekend Film Recommendation: Only God Forgives

The director of this week’s movie recommendation, Nicolas Winding Refn, once conceded to a nonplussed audience at Cannes that this was the kind of film people would either love or virulently detest—but like the film or not, it’s indelibly memorable. It’s his 2013 thriller set in Bangkok, Only God Forgives.

Ryan Gosling plays Julian, the drug-running heir apparent to a Muay Thai boxing club that operates as a front for the family’s narcotics business. His older brother Billy is a violent pervert who, at the end of one of his depraved excursions, is caught by the police red-handed next to the corpse of a young prostitute he has brutally beaten.

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Enter a mysterious police officer named Lt. Chang, played by Vithaya Pansringarm. Chang is an emotionless arbiter of a strange—and decidedly not legal—justice. He offers the victim’s father the opportunity to exact merciless retribution upon Billy’s body of the very kind that Billy visited on the daughter. But Chang charges the fee of severing the father’s arm in return.

Now that Julian succeeds to become second-in-line to the illegal empire owned by his mother Crystal (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), she demands that he prove himself to her by exacting revenge on all those associated with Billy’s death. Thus continues a long sequence of revenges and duels that punctuate the film: in exchange for taking the prostitute’s life, Billy must die; in exchange for taking Billy’s life, the father must die; in exchange for taking the father’s life, Julian…

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Weighing all these lives in the balance, deliberating on whom to bestow mercy, is Chang. Dispelling any ambiguity about the film’s title, Winding Refn reputedly whispered in Pansringarm’s ear before each shoot “You are God.” Chang is mesmerizing as villain-cum-deus ex machina. He is not scrawny, certainly, but he is slight. He is unflinchingly blank, even when torturing witnesses for information. He requires neither sleep nor food, despite spending all day perfecting his swordcraft and all night scraping the dregs of society off his boot. And, although he may not appear as such, he can swiftly dispatch even the most trained pugilist with expert skill. He’s petrifying.

The real triumph of Only God Forgives is Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance as Julian’s mother Crystal. If one of the Real Housewives of Somewhere and Such had earned an advanced degree in sadism, she’d look and act like Crystal: her meretricious fashion sense is as startling as her language, which she uses to dismantle or manipulate all around her. It’s Crystal’s world, folks, and we should just consider ourselves lucky to be living in it.

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Which is why Julian dares not even question when Crystal demands he kill those responsible for his brother’s death. With only 17 lines of dialogue, Julian’s character is relatively hard to make out, but it’s apparent that he isn’t a feckless man; rather, his mother’s hold on him is one of such total and complete manipulation that he acquiesces to even her most emasculating and sadistic displays. Those familiar with Drive (2011), the previous collaboration between Winding Refn and Gosling, will be used to the lingering shots of Gosling’s beautiful, is-he-about-to-cry facial expression in the immediate moments before a viscerally violent outburst. All of this makes Julian’s character rather difficult to place.

Which means that between Pansringarm’s inscrutable moral code, Crystal’s fiery and wanton scheming, and Julian’s odd quietude, Only God Forgives is certainly not a strong character-driven film. It also is painfully slow at points, even for a movie as short as this (running at only 89 minutes). It is, however, an exciting experience. The frankly amazing use of color, superb soundtrack, and slick production values make for the same kind of sensational combination that made Manhunter (reviewed here) so electrifyingly engaging, and it’s a theatricality that I’ve praised in one of Winding Refn’s earlier works, Bronson. Like that film, Only God Forgives showcases a director trying something new on for style, and while it doesn’t always work, you’re glad they tried.