As someone who thought Drive (2011) should have won the Oscar that year, I was very excited about Only God Forgives (2013). I didn’t want to read anything about it or see any clips from it. Even so, I live in the world and some things got through, like the picture of Ryan Gosling’s pummeled face that looked more like an allergic reaction to a bee sting than anything else. On IMDb, I saw that it had something to do with a Bangkok cop and a fight. For some reason, I thought Gosling was the cop. He isn’t, but that’s no nevermind to how the movie would turn out. I beg your indulgence for one more personal montage story. After Valhalla Rising (2009), I was stunned, lost for words in its vision and visceral qualities. After The Master (2012), I was stunned by the characters and the story, not sure that I understood anything anymore. After Funny Games (2007), I wasn’t sure if I had any faith in humanity anymore because of its believable cruelty. Only God Forgives has elements of vision, character, and cruelty, but neither stunned nor dazzled me. I’m a little worried that it wasn’t even good.
Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling) are drug dealers in Bangkok with a sideline in a fight club for adolescents. Bangkok is another world where the line between what is legal and what is illegal is askew. Billy is the older brother and the leader. But when Billy rapes and murders a young girl, Officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows the father of the murdered girl to beat Billy to death. Chang then punishes the father in his own way. Billy’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), comes to Bangkok to collect the body of her “first son” and see that vengeance is taken. Julian tracks down the aggrieved father, but lets him go when he understands the full story. Crystal, however, is less forgiving, instigating a cycle of violence and pain that will engulf them all.
Writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn does effectively create the world of Bangkok. As a setting, it oozes with menace and unpredictability. It’s heavy on the red, but a little style is allowed. The problem is that Refn goes well beyond “a little” style. Between the many dream or dream-like sequences and un-euphemized Greek characters, it’s just too much to carry what is, ultimately, a conventional story. Refn must have spent thirty minutes (and what felt like an hour) filming Gosling walking around his poorly lit hallways with a look of dead pain on his face. In fact, Refn often lingers on people walking from one end of a street or corridor to the other for no other reason than to keep the pace. The big fight scene, what the trailer seems to center around, is utterly inconsequential.
A single viewing of the movie probably isn’t enough. For one thing, when Billy says “Time to meet the devil”, I thought he was talking about a sting operation to get to Chang (who had already been vaguely introduced) with the devil in question being a pimp or kingpin. Even when Billy was beaten to death, I thought that he had sacrificed himself to smoke out Chang and his dying was meeting the devil. Neither was the case. So, I was under a significant misapprehension for a key part of the movie. Maybe that would change my view. I also spent a bulk of the movie wanting it to be something else. Obviously, I wanted my police procedural, but when that was obviously not happening, I moved on to wanting Refn to investigate Julien’s relationship with Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam). Spoiler, I don’t think anything was ever really there. Then I wished we’d seen more of Billy and Julien’s relationship either with Billy alive or with Julien interacting with things related to Billy. There is Chang’s code, Julien’s ambivalence in the world, and Crystal’s deep, deep emotional problems.
A lot of my aversion of the film stems from the Crystal character, especially her dialogue. She says two very ugly things that I found unnecessary and impolite. First, she says the n-word and I don’t like the word and I find it doubly stupid when describing a Thai person. Apparently people say these things still, but nobody I know says them and for that reason it sounds forced and anachronistic. Second, she describes the physical difference between her two sons. I don’t think anyone, unless they were totally insane, would admit to the knowledge of her children that she claimed. The emotional abuse about Julien feeling inferior to his brother, I have no trouble with at all. Julien’s quiet acceptance of it, I accept. But Crystal is so foul in the mouth, but so subdued in her manner that someone has failed somewhere in creating the character. I’m inclined to blame Refn who dresses her terribly and films her indifferently.
When I saw the poor rating Only God Forgives and the anecdote about people booing at Cannes, I assumed implicitly that people just didn’t feel it. Drive, though it was very well received critically, didn’t get its full due when awards season rolled around, so I thought this would be similar. I can see now that I was blinding myself. If people didn’t get it or thought it was too violent, they would at least have kept quiet in the face of sound workmanship. The booing and the poor reception, I think, was a combination of what looked like sloppy work and extreme violence. That violence works, I believe, when the film has put me into a trance, but Only God Forgives failed hypnotize. So, when someone gets cut from the abdomen to the collar bone, exposing the ribs like a line of snapped pencils, I was disgusted.
And another thing! It’s like Only God Forgives had two different movies going on. The one, the first, was an impressionistic dream state where you aren’t sure what’s real and what isn’t. The other is a basic revenge story with an ambivalent character supposed to enact the vengeance. There, it’s clear what’s going on and who wants what from whom. The two were not successfully blended. If I could draw an analogy that couldn’t possibly illuminate how I felt, Only God Forgives is like the complete inverse of The New World (2005) where the impressionist style clashed with the overpowering narrative. It felt like Refn’s dwelled in certain moments because there wasn’t enough meat to flesh out the story. The worst part about that is that there was plenty there to investigate, but was left off the table.
Warning: Includes intense violence, anticipation for nudity that doesn’t arrive, two moments of very naughty sexual behavior, and extreme moments of surrealism.