Only God Forgives-attachment0

Only God Forgives

Movie Information

The Story: Violent revenge thriller set in a nightmarish version of Bangkok. The Lowdown: Extremely violent, almost fetishistic thriller that moves at a hypnotically slow pace. It will offend some, bore others, fascinate the rest — and probably generate hate mail for me for even cautiously recommending it.
Score:

Genre: Revenge Thriller
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Tom Burke
Rated: R

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

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

48 thoughts on “Only God Forgives

  1. Ken Hanke

    This is a film I would not try to convince anyone to go see. If you’ve any reservations, you probably should heed them. I think the violence here is less than that of I Saw the Devil, but how one responds to movie violence is so subjective.

  2. Xanadon't

    I Saw the Devil was a much tougher watch for me than Drive. I remember heading to a local bar after leaving the theater instead of going straight home because we both liked the idea of talking to somebody that didn’t just finish watching such an unsettling movie. It was like we needed an hour or two buffer so that the movie couldn’t follow us home.

    To me the violence in I Saw the Devil, particularly the many extremely close and long shots, felt more exhibitionistic and sadistic than the more explosive and unexpected violence in Drive.

    Now, if you liked Drive and are keen on late period esoteric David Lynch, this is likely your movie.

    Sounds like the odds are in my favor.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Well, let me think about this for a moment…I’m reasonably sure that I saw I Saw the Devil on a screener, and I know I saw Drive in a theater. (In fact, I remember it was theater no. 3 at The Carolina.) Of the two, I Saw the Devil disturbed me more by a long shot, even though Drive had the advantage of being seen on the big screen. Devil seemed to linger rather unwholesomely over pain. (I just looked at the credits and it came out through Magnet/Magnolia, which means I certainly saw a screener. It also means it’s almost certainly around here. I should perhaps look at it again.)

    You, by the way, are the person I think most likely to like Only God Forgives. What’s odd about that is that I have no clue what either Justin or Edwin will think of it, and I obviously actually know them better.

  4. Xanadon't

    You know of course that there’s a small piece of me that now wants to come back with a scathing response to the film just for the sake of surprise.

    But I’m mostly licking my chops in anticipation of being quite fascinated –and hopefully taken– by it.

    If there’s much to be made of Jodorowsky vibes running through the film, then I’m really not sure how it will go over. I mostly enjoyed El Topo, but my attention was strained at times. Santa Sangre didn’t do as much for me as I’d thought it would and I still haven’t sat down with Holy Mountain.

  5. Ken Hanke

    I think it’s more that someone who likes Jodorowski would probably like this more than much actual connection. Santa Sangre is probably the most accessible Jodorowsky, The Holy Mountain the least.

  6. Me

    “Now, if you liked Drive and are keen on late period esoteric David Lynch, this is likely your movie.”

    I’ve read the complete opposite about this film if you like Drive and are a Gosling fan boy you will be running for the hills.

  7. Ken Hanke

    No. Stop this right now. You’re quickly turning into the Tim Peck of the movie page. If you’ve got something to say, say it. But enough with the links. I know this is heresy to you, but I really don’t care what they’re saying over at Filmspotting.

  8. Ken Hanke

    I find it hard to believe you don’t know who Tim Peck is, though you can be pretty oblivious, but I didn’t accuse you of lying. I rarely find you at a loss to have somebody else’s opinion handy.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Got a link?

    No. Go to the archives at the top of the page and look up Atlas Shrugged.

    I can’t form an opinion unless i see the film.

    So why do you feel the need to cite someone else’s opinion?

    How else was i supposed to take “Of course you have”?

    As a statement of fact? I never for a moment doubted it — or that you would feel it essential to tell us.

  10. Me

    Got a link is a joke. (See comment above)

    I can’t read other people’s opinions before seeing a film?
    Isn’t that called criticism .

    Sounded like someone being a smart as instead of someone stating a fact.

  11. Ken Hanke

    I can’t read other people’s opinions before seeing a film?

    Of course, you can, but the stuff on the message board that you sent me consisted of someone commenting positively about the film and you (I assume it’s you with that avatar) asking a question about Spring Breakers. It didn’t even relate to what you were claiming.

    Sounded like someone being a smart as instead of someone stating a fact.

    Any inflection that would make you think that you put there. I indeed was not in the least surprised that you had read “the complete opposite.” I expected you would have.

  12. Me

    Anyway its definitely a film to see in theaters instead of home and i agree with “that dude” in the forum i think its better than Drive.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Oh, it’s much better than Drive as far as I’m concerned. And if nothing else, you can spell “definitely,” which is a novelty these days.

  14. Steven

    [b](even the one scene where I felt compelled to look away)[/b]

    I’m assuming you’re referring to the scene involving an eye, yes?

  15. Steven

    [b]Yes. I thought you weren’t seeing it? Or is this from reportage?[/b]

    I caved, mainly from boredom. I don’t know what to think of it. Its style is impeccable, but anything beyond that I need to mull over. I still find Refn’s violence tendencies to be sadistic.

  16. Ken Hanke

    I don’t know that I disagree. The fact that he doesn’t really dwell on the pain helps. Compare this to I Saw the Devil — which I found and watched again — the violence is much faster here. It doesn’t generally linger on the pain. The whole point of I Saw the Devil is a killer who gets off on inflicting pain and a vengeance seeking policeman whose goal is to physically torture the killer over and over. I find that more disturbing.

  17. Xanadon't

    I’m still mulling it over but so far don’t feel all that much of anything for this movie. I probably better give it a day or two. And I may even watch it again later this week.

    This actually didn’t feel much like latter day Lynch to me. Even if it looked and acted like it at times, it rarely felt like it. Lynch’s stuff has always felt –to me anyway– like a labor of love, even at his most strange and enigmatic. I get a sense from his films that he really loves and is fascinated by his art and the characters and peculiarities within. I feel like he has a real compulsion toward showing and telling when he’s making a film, even in cases where it might feel like he’s being obtuse and frustrating and just bat-shit weird. I detect a passion and sort of mad genius behind it that resonates in me somewhere. Some may find it self-indulgent. I either don’t or simply don’t mind.

    Refn’s new film felt a bit empty by contrast. Oh sure, there’s plenty of technical skill and artistic prowess, but it felt more hollow and contrived. I understand that traditional narrative and story aren’t his concern here, but too much of the film felt like one violent scene or set-piece after another simply existing for the sake of introducing the next violent set up. And on and on. I don’t mean to overstate it, but it didn’t feel as though anything arrived from a very organic impulse– it felt more of a matter of “this would be cool” and “wouldn’t it be cool if..”.

    I know this is too simple and that there are various and hefty themes at play here that connects a good deal of the film together. There are obvious religious allusions and ideas about good/evil/justice, Oedipal complexes, Freudian womb theory, corruption vs innocence, East, West, masculinity-mascushminity, and goodness knows what-all. I’m certainly still in the process of unpacking much of this and figuring out what works (in the film itself and for purposes of my own interpretation) and what doesn’t.

    But it left me colder and more detached than I imagined it would. And even the more graphic instances of violence had very little effect on me at all, I guess perhaps because I just wasn’t moving with the movie the way that was intended.

    Very Kubrickian though, I agree. Almost to the point of distracting at times. Not only in the measured shots and visual cues and editing but also in certain parts of the musical score.

    So I guess I’ll keep thinking about it and try to determine where the movie truly just didn’t speak to me and where it simply hasn’t yet revealed itself to me.

  18. Me

    The Kubrickian thing was distracting. Also i kept thinking about how many black suits and white shirts Chang had.

    This film to me had more funnier moments than Drive. Kriston Scott Thomas’s character was almost over the top funny at times. It was way darker which was a plus.

  19. Me

    So I read your whole review and didn’t see any mention if this Tim Peck character.

    You didn’t even think the prostitute was supposed to be a girl?

  20. Ken Hanke

    I’m still mulling it over but so far don’t feel all that much of anything for this movie. I probably better give it a day or two. And I may even watch it again later this week.

    That last suggests that it may have made a stronger impression than you realize. Time will tell. After all, I had a certain party tell me only yesterday that he’s re-watched Safety Not Guranteed and no longer had the problems he’d originally had with it.

    Lynch’s stuff has always felt — to me anyway — like a labor of love, even at his most strange and enigmatic

    I’m not as sold on Lynch as I’m supposed to be. At least two of his films — Wild at Heart and Lost Highway — strike me as weird for weird’s sake. And bear in mind, I actually “like” Inland Empire.

    I detect a passion and sort of mad genius behind it that resonates in me somewhere.

    Whether I feel that or not, I would agree that Refn is much more detached.

    Some may find it self-indulgent. I either don’t or simply don’t mind.

    All art is indulgent on some level.

    Very Kubrickian though, I agree. Almost to the point of distracting at times. Not only in the measured shots and visual cues and editing but also in certain parts of the musical score.

    I have trouble processing how something as measured and formal as Only God Forgives can be fairly described as “distracting.” This strikes me as wholly conscious — a film that means for you to be aware of the filmmaking at every turn, even while it’s “lying” to you most of the time.

    I don’t know that the film “speaks” to me. It more just fascinates me.

  21. Ken Hanke

    So I read your whole review and didn’t see any mention if this Tim Peck character.

    I’m going to assume that’s meant to be a joke.

    You didn’t even think the prostitute was supposed to be a girl?

    No, that’s not what I said. I said it wasn’t even entirely clear that she was.

  22. Xanadon't

    may have made a stronger impression than you realize

    Oh I’ve certainly been pondering the movie a good deal. And having just learned that it’s available on my Blu-ray Vudu service gizmo, I’ll almost certainly give it a second look soon.

    I’m not as sold on Lynch as I’m supposed to be. At least two of his films — Wild at Heart and Lost Highway — strike me as weird for weird’s sake. And bear in mind, I actually “like” Inland Empire.

    Wild at Heart is easily my least favorite Lynch film, to the extent that I really don’t much like it at all. It seems like the one in which Lynch was trying too deliberately to create a sort of “instant cult classic” and a lot of things went wrong. There’s a certain infectious energy to it in segments, but also far too much over-the-top eccentricities and quirky junk.

    I don’t consider Lost Highway to be among his weaker films like most, but it doesn’t by itself provide too much satisfaction at a logical or narrative level– especially in one watch. But the atmosphere is awesome and the feelings it provokes made it a pretty remarkable viewing experience for me.

    Inland Empire is the same in a lot of ways, except even better. In a strictly visual sense, I don’t know that anyone could’ve hoped for a better transition to digital from him. And the score does so much for that movie too. It’s was a pretty awesome three hour experience.

    I actually wonder if I would’ve liked Only God Forgives better if it was longer, which feels weird to say. But there was a part of me on the drive home that felt like it wasn’t a complete movie, and I’m not sure that I’m simply objecting to the lack in characterization and story. I feel like more time to wander around in the world it presents would’ve helped it. Maybe not more wallpaper and hallways, but more of something to ground the characters in a tangible space. As it stands it felt to me that the violent encounters are too closely and transparently cobbled together.

    All art is indulgent on some level.

    Shrewd point. I’ll keep this in mind next time I’m tempted to lean on this phrase as a cause for criticism.

    I have trouble processing how something as measured and formal as Only God Forgives can be fairly described as “distracting.” This strikes me as wholly conscious — a film that means for you to be aware of the filmmaking at every turn, even while it’s “lying” to you most of the time.

    You’re right, the measured and controlled feel wasn’t distracting in itself. It actually promotes a kind of hyper-awareness of what and how things are being shown. Maybe it’s just that I felt that too often the style was so formal that it lacked personality. Segments of Drive definitely called Kubrick to mind, but I also felt that there was a pulse to the film that felt fresh and unique and suggested a filmmaker carving out a voice and identity that I took strongly to. I didn’t immediately feel these things in the case of Only God Forgives.

    Maybe I’m simply undervaluing fascination. I already want to watch the film again– despite knowing, or at least thinking I know, my fundamental feelings about it.

    Hell, while I’m at it, perhaps I should push my 2001 revisit up a few months too.

  23. Me

    Its pretty clear shes a girl ha.

    DrSerizawa can you believe it, that was one of the craziest things ive ever heard someone say about a film

  24. Ken Hanke

    I actually wonder if I would’ve liked Only God Forgives better if it was longer, which feels weird to say.

    No, I can understand that. It’s almost as if it’s over before it’s fully established. Actually, aspects of the world of the film remind me of Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem. Figure that one out. I need to.

    Shrewd point. I’ll keep this in mind next time I’m tempted to lean on this phrase as a cause for criticism.

    Well, it seems kinda obvious to me. Unless you’re making something strictly as commerce, what is any artistic creation but someone indulging himself (or herself)? “Self-indulgent” is just a term people toss at personal vision movies they don’t like.

    Segments of Drive definitely called Kubrick to mind, but I also felt that there was a pulse to the film that felt fresh and unique and suggested a filmmaker carving out a voice and identity that I took strongly to.

    This might be a key point, because Drive was mostly shrug-worthy for me. The occasional outbursts of violence and the amusement value of Gosling wearing those blood splattered clothes are all that really stayed with me.

    Maybe I’m simply undervaluing fascination.

    Maybe. I don’t think there’s much more to the film than that. But that’s kind of unusual in itself.

  25. Me

    I don’t know about that ive heard apes are the only animal that masterbates. Scratch that ive seen it on Youtube.

  26. Xanadon't

    Certainly marsupial, but I don’t know if Refn gives us sufficient evidence to determine wombat. In fact, the lack of overtly Australian accent has me speculating toward opossum.

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