Review: Only God Forgives

August 2, 2013
  • Rating: ★★★☆☆

Nicholas Winding Refn’s blood-soaked Bangkok revenge movie is so violent it makes his previous outing, the laconically brutal Drive, look like a kids movie about a plucky stuntman.

It’s essentially a collection of stylish, exquisitely orchestrated but disjointed scenes portraying a level of graphic violence that it’s hard not to call gratuitous. It revels in its brutality; you can feel Winding Refn heavy-breathing over every severed limb and collapsed skull. His vision of Bangkok slaps and squelches and everything smells of bad sex.

There isn’t much in the way of plot: American drug-dealer Billy (Tom Burke) – a vicious psychopath who runs a Bangkok boxing gym with his brother Julian (Ryan Gosling) – murders a prostitute, just for the hell of it. He’s that kind of guy. The local police chief, a mysterious, sword-wielding sociopath called Chang, tips off the girl’s father, who makes an impressive mess of Billy. Then the boys’ mother, Crystal, arrives, seeking retribution of her own.

Gosling isn’t known for his verbosity but he takes the strong, silent thing to a whole new level. If he were paid by the word, he wouldn’t have earned his bus fare home. Winding Refn’s pornification of his leading man is almost as gratuitous as the violence – the camera leers at him like a horny teenager, lingering on his chiseled jaw and bulging pecs, as if entranced by the sheer prettiness of the man.

Julian doesn’t say much because he has a lot on his mind. For a start, he has mother issues like you wouldn’t believe. You can see why. Kristin Scott Thomas’ Crystal – by far the movie’s best performance – is a gaudy, malevolent Barbie doll who takes great pleasure in humiliating her son, who she insists has a far smaller penis than his brother (“oh my god, Billy was enormous!”). She’s less quick to judge Billy; when Julian tells her his brother raped and murdered a 16-year-old she replies: “Well, I’m sure he had his reasons.”

Winding Refn’s film has no good characters, only broken, spiteful ones; no emotion, only violence. It’s a two dimensional, neon portrait of seedy lives in a tawdry town. The only character with any depth is Chang, who, in his time off, can be found belting out lovelorn karaoke songs. You’re left to ponder his motives for seeking revenge – is he the eponymous God, a righteous vigilante or just a sadist with a sword?

The dearth of plot makes you hyper-aware of the film’s stylistic flourishes, some of which are inspired, such as the claustrophobic scenes shot in bleak, blood-red corridors. Others, including the repeated shots of a kitsch, golden boxing idol, start to grate.

Only God Forgives isn’t a great film. It’s self-indulgent and frustrating; strip away the bright colours and extravagant set-pieces and you’re left with a fairly standard genre movie. Winding Refn sure has a sense of style, though – and for that, I can forgive a lot.

First published in City A.M.