This is an incredibly divisive film that probably should have “Not for everyone” emblazoned on it in giant neon letters. (That the film is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky speaks volumes.) Only God Forgives is being marketed as “from the director of Drive,” and while that is undeniably true, it gives a wrong impression. It’s certainly as violent as Drive — and maybe more gory — but the pace is different, the tone is different, the feeling is different. This is darker, more disturbing, considerably harder to penetrate and a lot slower (at one point, I thought the film had frozen). Writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn has compared Drive to doing cocaine, and this movie to doing acid. While my personal experience with either commodity is nonexistent, I get the point. In short, if you liked Drive there’s no guarantee you’ll like this. Now, if you liked Drive and are keen on late period esoteric David Lynch, this is likely your movie. Frankly, I liked it better than Drive, but I long ago figured out that I’m too old and insufficiently hip and disaffected to embrace Drive. Refn’s all-out mind-fuck here interests me more.
The story is almost moronically simple. Julian (Ryan Gosling with one expression and almost as few lines of dialogue) and his brother Billy (Brit TV actor Tom Burke) run a Muay Thai boxing-club/drug-dealing front in a neon nightmare version of Bangkok. When Billy avails himself of an underage prostitute and then kills her (for no apparent reason), Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) — seemingly the head of the police force — has the girl’s father beat Billy to death. Afterward, the lieutenant hacks off the father’s arm for letting his daughter be a prostitute. Since Julian does nothing to avenge his brother, his coarse, foul-mouthed mother (Kristin Scott Thomas with a blonde wig and a grating American accent) shows up to take care of matters. (When apprised of Billy’s crime, she merely notes, “I’m sure he had his reasons.”) Deaths and assorted violence ensue, leading to a climax as twisted as the rest of the movie.
Story, however, is the least of the film’s concerns. No, this film exists in a world of its own, placing shots from unrelated scenes into sequences where they don’t belong — an approach that undermines our attempts to understand it. At least, they don’t belong there in terms of realism. Thematically may be another matter, but it seems to me that it’s mostly so that we can never gain our footing in this film’s world. Nothing is what it seems. I’m not even sure that Julian’s prostitute girlfriend (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) has ever had sex with him or is, in fact, supposed to be a girl. This should make pretty clear my opening disclaimer that this isn’t for everyone.
Everything about Only God Forgives is strange — though, unlike some, I’m convinced the film has a sense of humor. I really do think Kristin Scott Thomas’ outrageous dialogue is intentionally amusing — even if the humor is pitch black. I’m also certain that the vengeful Chang’s ability to “magically” produce his sword from a completely invisible scabbard on his back — complete with exaggerated movie-style unsheathing sound effect — is meant to be funny. But mostly this beautifully photographed, deceptively formal (the images and camera movements are downright Kubrickian), unrepentantly violent movie is a highly stylized vision of a nightmare. And it’s very good at being that. I won’t say that I liked it — that’s not a word I’d care to use here — but I was mesmerized by it (even the one scene where I felt compelled to look away). And I remain haunted by its otherworldliness. Rated R for strong bloody violence including grisly images, sexual content and language.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas