A few years ago, back when we were doing the original Film Geek Central podcast, Austin and I review Nicolas Wending Refn’s film, BRONSON. This was my first exposure to Refn and I was immediately taken with his film and style. Austin disagreed, saying that BRONSON felt like an entire film devoted to one of the secondary henchmen from a cheesy action flick. I disagreed with this assessment being applied to BRONSON, but I may agree with this assessment being applied to ONLY GOD FORGIVES.
Billy (Tom Burke) and his younger brother Julian (Ryan Gosling) run a corrupt fighting ring in Thailand, though they get most of their cash from dealing drugs. They also have a terrifying violent streak. Billy goes to a brothel and reacts violently when they don’t have any children he can have sex with. He walks the street and picks up a 16 year-old prostitute, not just forcing himself on her, but murdering and mutilating her as well. He is caught by the police and comes face to face with an avenging force.
Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is a police officer who also uses violence and brutality to get results. But whereas Billy and Julian unleash their rage in a blind fury, Chang deals in violence with measured discipline, always in the name of justice. Whenever he’s not on duty, Chang returns to a nice, modest home outside the ugly city, living a Bushido lifestyle with his young daughter.
Billy is killed thanks to the intervention of Chang. Julian intends to seek revenge but has second thoughts when he discovers the crimes Billy committed. This does not sit well with Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who arrives from America and decides to settle matters for herself.
There is a sense of religious symbolism in ONLY GOD FORGIVES. Chang represents an avenging angel. Likewise, the film’s most Satanic figure is undoubtedly Crystal. She belittles Julian and strongly suggests an inappropriate relationship with her children. She is undoubtedly responsible for the monsters her children have become.
But the main focus of the film is not Billy or Chang or even Crystal. The focus is on Julian, played by Ryan Gosling, who previously worked with Refn on DRIVE. Like his character in that film, Gosling plays a violent man who works in the criminal underworld, a man who doesn’t say much and who you don’t want to be around when he finally goes off. Unlike that character however, Julian is pretty much a blank slate. He is silent for most of the film and his facial expression rarely changes. But whereas Gosling’s DRIVE character had so much going on in those moments of silence, those stares, that tortured look. There was a lot going on beneath the surface and because of Gosling’s performance, you could sense that. Likewise, Gosling’s character in ONLY GOD FORGIVES has a lot going on beneath the surface. It’s a seething cauldron of violence and rage, barely contained within Julian’s frame. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Instead, Julian doesn’t seem to be the complex character Gosling and Refn think he is. He really is someone who just mills around, taking abuse from his mom, watching an exotic dancer masturbate on stage and then exploding in pathetic fury at unexpected moments.
Julian is not a very interesting character, and a poor choice to be the focal point here. Conversely, Pansringarm is fascinating as Chang. The performance is one of the most unexpected treats so far this year, the type of assured, multidimensional performance that too often gets overlooked. The moral code Chang brings to a police force which is known for its corruption is infinitely more interesting than Julian’s sniveling.
Refn is still a skilled director and it’s seeing how he sets the scene which makes ONLY GOD FORGIVES more entertaining than it would be otherwise. In 2013, there will be few films as absolutely gorgeous as this one. The colors leap off the screen and the way he frames the shots brings a beauty to even the most mundane scenes. Roughly eighty percent of the shots are stunning enough to be still pictures in Sight and Sound magazine.
ONLY GOD FORGIVES is a stunning film to look at, but it’s also a frustrating one to sit through. It repeatedly insists that it is telling a psychologically complex storyline. But just believing it does not make it so. It’s an unconventional and moderately interesting film. But as Gertrude Stein famously said, “there is no there there.” ★★½ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for graphic violence, strong language, nudity and sexual situations
– Running time: 1hr 30mins.