Review: ‘Only God Forgives,’ All Others Pay in Pain

Ryan Gosling in 'Only God Forgives' (Radius-TWC)
Ryan Gosling in ‘Only God Forgives’ (Radius-TWC)

Blood is thicker than water in Only God Forgives, the new film by Nicolas Winding Refn, in which the Drive filmmaker colloborates again with Ryan Gosling — and spills far more of the red stuff.

Only God Forgives is painted with pain, a series of portraits detailing the exquisite anguish and agony suffered by one and all who come in contact with a woman and her two sons. Gosling plays the younger of the two siblings; his older brother is murdered after he kills a young woman, and mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) expects — nay, demands — that he exact a furious vengeance upon those responsible.

Mother took over leadership of the family criminal enterprise after her husband was killed some time in the past, and she certainly strikes fear into the hearts of her minions, though not much loyalty in her gang; under trial, the lower-level criminals give up their bosses, and so on and so forth, until the trail leads back to Mother, who is left alone.

What makes things especially difficult is that dear precious and handsome Gosling and his brother have been operating in Bangkok, Thailand, and their drug dealing has caught the attention of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a pitiless police officer who carries a large sword sheathed under the back of his shirt and will stop at nothing to stop those who —

Let’s stop there and note that little things like character, motivation, and story are not terribly important to Refn in this movie. As opposed to Drive, which was based on a good screenplay by Hossein Amini and based, in turn, on a (reportedly) good novel by James Sallis, Only God Forgives is an original property written by Refn, and it appears, for all intents and purposes, to be his version of an Asian revenge movie.

He borrows elements from Hong Kong (shoot outs), South Korea (the revenge theme), Japan (the deadpan characters and extreme violence), and Thailand (the setting and the boxing), then juxtaposes those influences with scenes derived from Alejandro Jodorowsky (languid dream sequences that question the boundaries of reality) and his own evolving sensibility (tightly-composed spaces filled with people and objects set just so), all served up on top of Cliff Martinez’ simmering musical score.

It’s a movie that is more alienating than insinuating, a highly-suggestive experience that at times approaches a level of self-aware parody — how else to take Kristin Scott Thomas’s performance, which veers wildly between outrageous obscenities and melodramatic simpering — in which the punch lines have been replaced by karaoke.

It doesn’t really make any kind of sense, but Only God Forgives did leave me feeling battered and bruised and sometimes amused. It’s a singular vision expressed by a cinematic artist who may be painting with his fingers. Or, he could be on the path to something that could be genuinely startling and original. I hope it’s the latter.

Only God Forgives opens on Friday, July 19, at Angelika Dallas.

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