Julian (played by Ryan Gosling), is an American hiding in Thailand running a Thai boxing club and smuggling drugs simultaneously. His brother Billy (Tom Burke) murders an underage prostitute, setting off a chain of revenge killings leading straight back to him. After Billy is killed, Julian is relayed the news, and then finds himself caught in the middle of extreme violence and bloodshed whilst trying to find the man responsible. The situation only gets worse after his mother Crystal (Kristin Scott-Thomas) gets herself involved and turns up to collect her dead son's body. Julian must confront a mysterious cop named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) to satisfy his mother's need for revenge.
It may not win the Palme D'Or, but it could win the Walkout D'Or, a gold trophy of a cinema-seat banged up into the upright position. Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives is a glitteringly strange, mesmeric and mad film set among American criminal expatriates in Bangkok.
It is ultraviolent, creepy and scary, an enriched-uranium cake of pulp, with a neon sheen. The first scenes made me think that Wong Kar-wai had made a new film called In the Mood for Fear or In the Mood for Hate.
Ryan Gosling plays Julian, the co-owner of a Muay Thai boxing club with his brother Billy (Tom Burke): an operation which is a front for selling drugs. Both brothers are naturally angry and violent, though in keeping his feelings in check, Julian is of course by far the more unsettling.
When Billy indulges his taste for violence and misogynist hate one night, and is himself murdered by his victim's father, Julian realises that he is expected to discharge the gangster's ultimate responsibility: revenge. But a twinge of conscience, or a twist of pain at the memory of those misdeeds which drove him from America in the first place, won't let him kill.
This inability brings two terrifying people into his life and into the movie: one is Julian's mother Crystal, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, enraged at Julian's pathetic disloyalty. The other is the mysterious plainclothes police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who roams the streets armed with a sword: a sharia-samurai of justice. It is the impassive Chang who first discovered Billy's victim and for enigmatic reasons of his own, created the situation in which Julian found himself agonisingly incapable of that payback his mother expects.
Chang could be a Zen master, whose vocation is to proselytise for the futility of revenge. He could be that god who insists that vengeance is solely his and only he will repay. Or he could be the ultimate sadist and tyrant, a Machiavel with a telepathic sense of how his victims are to be drawn into his power. Either way, Julian — clenched and unhappy in the three-piece suit he has put on for a dinner date with his mother, and never takes off — realises he has to challenge Chang to a fight.
The beauty of every frame of Only God Forgives—the striking compositions, the vivid colors—is so exceptional that it mostly offsets the questionable creative decisions that go on within that frame. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up film to Drive is even bolder in its design, mixing his trademark violence with an almost austere, dreamlike quality that positions this revenge thriller as something of a revenge tone poem. The characters never become more than well-positioned furniture in those frames, but the movie’s quite gorgeous in its own limited way.
Refn (who previously made the Pusher trilogy and Bronson) has reunited with his Drive star Ryan Gosling, who this time plays a far less assertive character. He’s Julian, an American living in a Bangkok underworld where everything is lit in vibrant reds and blues and where faces are always partially obscured by moody shadows. His older brother Billy (Tom Burke) has been murdered by the father of a teen prostitute that Billy raped and killed, an action that brings Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to Bangkok. Also mixed up in the criminal world, she’s like Cruella de Vil without the mink coat and dalmatians, hurling racist epithets in every direction and goading her remaining son into finding out who’s behind Billy’s death.
That setup suggests a wall-to-wall action picture perhaps similar in approach to Drive, but Refn goes in another direction, stripping away the propulsion to deliver a druggy, slow-burn yarn where the occasional action sequence punctuates the otherwise hypnotic sparseness.
Equipped with a terrific score from Drive composer Cliff Martinez that’s full of pounding drums and terse strings, Only God Forgives doesn’t so much build tension as it sets a mood and then explores it like spelunkers in a cave, examining every crevice of this dark, mysterious space. Consequently, Refn’s film lacks the obvious rush of some of his earlier work, but its hyper-lucid attention to its atmospheric tone makes it relatively gripping nonetheless.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s an unqualified success. Because Refn (who wrote the script himself) sees his characters more as types, they’re never particularly interesting, even though he and cinematographer Larry Smith know precisely how to maximize their dramatic potential as B-movie avatars. (Gosling has never looked hunkier or more brooding, while Scott Thomas has never been more garish and frightening.) And while Gosling does a solid job playing a Hamlet-esque man of inaction, Julian is a dull center of a story that needs a stronger pulse. Compensating for him—or, more accurately, over-compensating—Scott Thomas camps up her performance as the chain-smoking, coarse, withering mother, showing off her chiseled arms and letting the sharp lines on her face betray a woman who has seen her share of humanity’s scummier side.
“Only God Forgives” but Cannes audiences don’t.
Despite the fact that Ryan Gosling and director Nicholas Winding Refn’s first film together “Drive” received rave reviews and had everyone excited for their second collaboration, “Only God Forgives,” that early good buzz has been replaced with boos.
“Drive” earned Refn the Best Director award from the Cannes Film Fest’s jury in 2011, but it doesn’t appear that his equally violent follow-up will follow suit. According to those present at the film’s screenings on Wednesday, audience reactions to “Only God Forgives” were less than enthusiastic.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg reported a “ton of walkouts a number of boos” while New York Magazine’s Jada Yuan Tweeted that she and other members of the press were debating whether they heard a lot of boos or just “a smattering.” That and according to Hollywood.com’s Matt Patches, apparently Ryan Gosling only has 17 lines of dialogue.
And now that the critics present at the screening have had time to write up their thoughts and post their reviews online, it appears that the majority opinion is less than flattering.
“Movies really don’t get much worse than Nicholas Winding Refn‘s ‘Only God Forgives’,” wrote Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells. “It’s a sh-- macho fantasy — hyperviolent, ethically repulsive, sad, nonsensical, deathly dull, snail-paced, idiotic, possibly woman-hating, visually suffocating, pretentious. I realize I sound like Rex Reed on one of his rants, but trust me, please — this is a defecation by an over-praised, over-indulged director who thinks anything he craps out is worthy of your time. I felt violated, s*** upon, sedated, narcotized, appalled and bored stiff.”
Awards Daily critic Sasha Stone wasn’t as appalled by the film as Wells, but also made note of the gratuitous violence.
If Drive was a chill muscle-car cruise through the pulpy noir territory of late 1960s and ‘70s getaway movies, bathed in cool blue neon, Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up, Only God Forgives, is a hypnotic fugue on themes of violence and retribution, drenched in corrosive reds. The skeletal narrative mixes martial arts action with sexually loaded mother-son conflict that makes superficial nods to Shakespeare and Greek tragedy. Even more than the Danish director’s previous film, this one has way more style than subtext, not that it’s likely to diminish its cultish allure for avid genre fans.
While Winding Refn’s stylized directorial stamp has certainly earned him a place at the big-league festival table, the Cannes programmers’ decision to offer an official competition berth to an entry with Midnight Movie coded into its DNA has once again raised eyebrows and a few sneers. However, as a launch platform for its July 19 U.S. release through the Weinstein Company’s Radius label, that should only help fuel awareness.
Alongside the magnetic Ryan Gosling as another taciturn brooding antihero, the film’s juiciest pleasure is Kristin Scott Thomas as a crime empress who works a slender cigarette like a master calligrapher wielding a brush.
The actress’ frequent detours into deglamorized roles in contemporary French films aside, for many of us she remains indelibly associated with period pieces, as if a Marcel Wave and a fur stole were intrinsic parts of her elegant screen persona. In a brilliant casting stroke, she appears here as Crystal, a platinum-haired, poison-tongued ice queen who conjures thoughts of Lady Macbeth, Medea and Tamora from Titus Andronicus, as styled by Donatella Versace.
Gosling plays Julian, an American hiding out from justice in Bangkok, where he runs a Muay Thai boxing club as a front for drug trafficking. For reasons in which Winding Refn reveals zero interest, Julian's big brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and brutally murders a 16-year-old prostitute, sitting beside her with his head in his hands when cops come.
At that point the film’s third major character is introduced, a senior police official named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who is both judge and executioner, his priestly appearance in marked contrast to his ruthlessness with his sword and fists. Making pronouncements on justice with God-like authority, he orders the dead girl’s father to punish her killer, which means curtains for Billy. While the film doesn’t stint on bloodshed, Winding Refn plays much of this early carnage at least partially off-camera.
Enter Crystal, who flies in from the States, aggrieved and ill-tempered, to retrieve the body of her beloved first-born son. Her gellid dismissal of the hotel desk clerk who informs her that her suite is not ready will be a vicarious thrill for anyone who has ever been rankled by check-in attitude after a tiring flight.
In a deliciously nasty scene that has already sparked excited chatter following a Weinstein Co. slate preview at Cannes, Julian convinces erotic dancer Mai (Rhatha Phongam) to pose as his girlfriend and accompany him to meet Mom. Crystal’s withering assessment of her packs a sting, but it’s nothing compared to her emasculation of Julian, right down to an unfavorable penis-size comparison with his late sibling. Informed of Billy’s savage crimes, she shrugs, “I’m sure he had his reasons.” Basically, Crystal needles Julian to man up and bring her the head of his brother’s killer on a platter. But beyond the flamboyant presentation, this is strictly generic Oedipal stuff.
The wallpaper emotes more than Ryan Gosling does in “Only God Forgives,” an exercise in supreme style and minimal substance from “Drive” director Nicolas Winding Refn. In retrospect, the controlled catatonia of Gosling’s previous perfs is nothing compared to the balled fist he plays here, a cipher easily upstaged by Kristin Scott Thomas’ lip-smacking turn as a vindictive she-wolf who travels to Bangkok seeking atonement for the death of her favorite son. As hyper-aggressive revenge fantasies go, it’s curious to see one so devoid of feeling, a venality even “Drive” fans likely won’t be inclined to forgive.
In the Cannes press notes, Refn reveals, “The original concept for the film was to make a movie about a man who wants to fight God,” which could explain the hellish red glow of the neon underworld that Julian (Gosling) inhabits. Together with older brother Billy (Tom Burke), he runs a crooked Bangkok boxing club — an archetypal den of sin borrowed from “The Set-Up” and its film-noir ilk, where the fights are rigged and the whole operation serves as a front for more serious crime.
Twisted madonna readings aside, there’s little to link Julian’s struggle to traditional Christian belief, suggesting that the deity at whom Refn and his characters shake their fists is likely of a more Greek temperament. That interpretation fits better with the siblings’ Oedipal-inflected rivalry and the generally fickle way in which the all-powerful local police chief, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), seems to make the rules up as he goes along.
The trouble starts when Billy goes out looking for an underage hooker not only to defile, but to beat beyond recognition. Discovering the corpse, Chang orders the girl’s father to even the score (the only thing to ameliorate the ensuing carnage is the fact that the red-lit room masks the blood). As is so often the case when it comes to violent payback, the gesture merely serves to escalate the situation, and Julian is technically at a disadvantage, considering Chang represents the law, specifically the law of lex talionis, which he enforces by sword, chopstick or whatever sharp implement happens to be at hand in Refn’s characteristically brutal style.