The foreboding title of Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film does not even begin to suggest the pulpy, unapologetically sanguine depravity contained within its 90 minutes. But it does name a quality viewers will need if they are to sit through the film: forgiveness.
Brothers Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling) are drug dealers in Bangkok who work its seedy underworld surrounded by a cadre of white enforcers. Meanwhile, tougher-than-nails police captain Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) metes out brutal justice with a sword, taking no prisoners. One night, after following through on his loudly announced intention to “fuck a 14-year-old girl,” bad boy Billy is murdered. The brothers’ overbearing mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), promptly flies into town and demands that Julian exact revenge. Despite his misgivings, Julian obeys his mother, leading to cycles of bloody vengeance from which no one emerges unscathed.
Saying that Only God Forgives is violent is like saying that Hell is hot. When Chang starts swinging his devilish sword—an implement that gets the lingering close-up treatment of a phallus in a porn film—limbs go flying, rib cages are split from top to bottom, and torrents of blood pour forth as victims moan. One unfortunate baddie gets spikes driven into his forearms, causing him to howl piteously; another fellow is blinded with boiling oil, then bludgeoned with a wok. Chang doesn’t mess around. He does, however, like to sing. Long, bewildering stretches of the film are devoted to the police captain’s crooning before an audience of his colleagues. Are these dream sequences, or are they real? Who cares? Let’s see Chang chop off some more appendages!
Chang’s nemesis is Crystal—as played by Kristin Scott Thomas, perhaps the film’s saving grace—a Machiavellian milf who takes her fashion cues from Barbie and her ethics lessons from Pol Pot. She refers to Chang as “that yellow nigger.” Hell-bent on avenging Billy’s death, no matter the human cost, she pushes Julian into committing acts of increasing brutality. Unsurprisingly, she’s not the world’s warmest mother. When Julian brings a Thai prostitute to dinner posing as girlfriend, Crystal greets her with: “How many cocks can you entertain with that cute little cum dumpster of yours?”
High in gloss, Only God Forgives is mostly a collection of fight-scene money shots—in which blood is the emitted liquid—interspersed with stylized dream-like sequences. One oneiric refrain consists of a lengthy point-of-view shot taking the viewer down red-tinted hallways that go on forever. DP Larry Smith (who worked with Refn on 2008’s Bronson) convincingly makes it seem as if the hallways are saturated with viscous blood, but the perplexing back-and-forth between “dream” and fight sequences, coupled with an intrusive soundtrack heavy on synthetic strings, makes the movie difficult to attend to. In a knowing nod to just how little what the characters say actually matters, several pivotal conversations are inaudible: lips move, but the soundtrack drowns out the voices.
Only God Forgives bears a dedication to Alejandro Jodorowsky, and its exploration of the liminal space between dream and reality in the context of violent action is reminiscent of that director’s work. Its gangster-land setting, inventively disorienting mise en scène, and synthesizer soundtrack pay homage to Johnnie To, Wong Kar Wai, Dante Lam, and Hong Kong action films.
It’s worth remarking that the “hero” (or antihero) in Only God Forgives is a Thai cop and not one of the Western movie stars. Gosling is little more than eye candy; he plays Julian as if he’s always just about ready for a nap. For all the gore, there is no nudity to speak of, only heavy breathing and suggestive hand placement, as if Refn and company are targeting wide theatrical release in Asia, especially China, more than the American box office. But though Only God Forgives could turn out to be a cult classic, and an international one at that, its A-list cast delivers only B-grade pleasures.