Only God Forgives

2013, Movie, R, 89 mins


When Nicolas Winding Refn's highly stylized revenge movie Only God Forgives debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, it joined a rarified list of features that were roundly and loudly booed by those attending the renowned event. Such a reception has greeted films that have gone on to become classics (L'Avventura), as well as infamous bombs (The Brown Bunny). Only God Forgives is far more likely to end up in the latter category.

The movie stars Ryan Gosling as Julian, an American drug dealer in Thailand who operates a Muay Thai boxing club as a legal front. In the film's opening act, his vicious older brother Billy (Tom Burke) hires and murders a young prostitute, and is then killed himself in retaliation by the girl's father. Julian hunts the father down with the intention of killing him, but when he learns about his brother's actions he refuses to go through with it.

Enter Julian's mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), one of the most nightmarish cinematic matriarchs since Faye Dunaway's Joan Crawford. She's a controlling, demanding, belittling figure in Julian's life, and she demands that Billy's death be avenged. She puts a plan in motion that triggers the interest of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a police detective who unapologetically and brutally takes all matters of justice into his own hands.

That plot makes Only God Forgives sound like a straight-up exploitation film, and if it had been directed with a flair for the ridiculous or an ounce of momentum, it might have worked. The movie could have been a cousin to Refn's previous film Drive, in which he teamed with Gosling to make a crime flick that combined Michael Mann's sleek cool with David Lynch's attraction to sudden, garish violence. Here, Refn attempts to fuse Gaspar Noe's visually audacious nihilism with Stanley Kubrick's rigid framing, and the result is a consistently dull movie that only triggers a response in viewers -- a negative one -- when its gruesome violence unmasks the empty heart at its center. The brutality is the point.

The pace is so protracted that Refn allows long silences to pass between the lines of dialogue in scenes, and since nothing of any interest is happening, viewers are likely to let their minds wander. It's possible Gosling doesn't utter more than a dozen sentences in the whole thing; his job is to project silent intensity, but instead of making us feel his inner torment, he comes off as a blank -- he doesn't brood so much as just stare dead-eyed into the middle distance as mayhem is unleashed around him.

Only God Forgives is fascinatingly bad, but not in a so-bad-it's-good way. It isn't exciting, it isn't engaging, and it isn't about anything other than a director trying to find an excuse to set up gruesome acts of violence. You start to wonder about the kind of person who thinks this movie is accomplishing something. The title may be prophetic, because it seems unlikely most filmgoers will forgive Refn for such a soulless, heartless, and mindless act of attempted envelope pushing. leave a comment --Perry Seibert

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