A sluggish art-house riff on the revenge movie, Only God Forgives revels in its shocking violence and suffocating atmosphere to the point of overwhelming its few positive elements.
For some filmmakers violence is just a part of their cinematic vision. From Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West) to Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) to Mel Gibson (The Passion of the Christ), the depiction of bloodshed is a major element in their works, keeping an arm’s length from the usual torture porn directors who exploit violence for shock value rather than use it as an effective tool to bring their art to life.
Nicolas Winding Refn firmly belongs in the before mentioned group of filmmakers. From his ground breaking Pusher trilogy to the cool as ice crime thriller Drive, the Denmark born director has effectively used violent imagery in his varied stories of damaged loners, freaks and monsters trying to survive the savage worlds they inhabit.
Only God Forgives breaks that streak. Seeping dread from every pore and wallowing in a perpetual state of darkness, Only God Forgives is Refn’s “up yours” to the mainstream masses who jumped aboard the Drive bandwagon, luring the unassuming with pinup leading man Ryan Gosling headlining the marque and subjecting them to a laborious – if not stylistically rewarding – trip through an “eye for an eye” neo-noir set in Thailand's criminal underworld.
Golsing plays Julian, a drug dealer and kick boxer who is coerced by his domineering and merciless crime-boss mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) to avenge the (perhaps deserving) murder of his brother (Tom Burke).
To call the relationship between mother and son twisted would be an understatement, with an incestuous vibe felt throughout their interactions.
Performances wise the two are fire and ice: Gosling adds another character to his gallery of near mute anti-heroes, delivering a total of 17 lines and redefining the art of the blank stare (of which vintage Robert De Niro is still the master). Thomas, on the other hand, spits venom as the dolled up Ma Baker whose penchant for cold blooded vengeance is equalled only by her ability to dish out some of the most shockingly vulgar insults heard in some time.
Outshining both actors is the calm presence of relative new comer Vithaya Pansringarm. He plays Chang, the police captain (and object of revenge) who owns the streets with the swift strike of his blade when he is not slaying it in the karaoke bar. Of all the characters Chang is the most interesting due to his passive duality, where one moment he is dispensing unspeakable savagery and the other shows him to be a delicate family man.
As the old testament “God” in the film’s title, Chang is the instigator of the many graphic violent scenes featured throughout. While it’s a given that a Refn movie would feature such moments, the excess which is presented here feels especially shallow, with the films suffocating atmosphere and one note characters robbing these acts of butchery of much needed emotion, exposing them as hollow depictions of bloodshed that is all about the shock value and less about the story.
Many will compare Only God Forgives with Drive, but its actual spiritual brother is Refns bloody existential viking picture Valhalla Rising. Difference is that film had an emotionally rich (albeit dark) undercurrent that gave its violence power. In Only God Forgives Refn plants his gory sequences in the middle of an emotionally stunted, incredibly pretentious and languish paced movie that – like a black hole – swallows whole any semblance of life. That is if it had a pulse to begin with.