Given the amount of press that has been generated about how Only God Forgives has been received at various film festivals around the world, it is difficult to see what the fuss is about. Reportedly booed by audience members in Cannes before taking out the top gong at the Sydney Film Festival, I’m not sure that either response is entirely appropriate, although the latter is probably closer to the mark. The much anticipated follow-up to Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn, Only God Forgives is short on dialogue and full of unlikeable, amoral characters, yet is still a somewhat engaging viewing experience. Several critics have attacked the film because of excessive violence, but the number of people killed in this film pales into insignificance when compared to the likes of Man of Steel or any of the ubiquitous action films that Hollywood churns out incessantly.
In what is a very simple, and simplistic, story, Ryan Gosling plays Julian, an American living in Thailand out to avenge the murder of his brother Billy (Tom Burke). Given that Billy’s death was, in itself, a payback for his killing of a 16-year-old girl, Julian initially has little inclination to seek any kind of retribution. However, the arrival of his foul-mouthed gangster mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) hell bent on revenge forces him into a course of action that ultimately triggers a tragic series of events for almost everybody involved. Gosling literally says next to nothing throughout the entire film, spending most of his screen time staring wordlessly into the ether as murder and mayhem is unleashed around him. It is very hard to connect with Julian or understand the things he does, such as allowing himself to be verbally abused by Crystal simply because – as he explains to girlfriend Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) – she is his mother.
Chang, meanwhile, is a policeman who divides his time between looking after his young daughter, singing in cafes and enacting violent retribution on any wrongdoers who cross his path. Chang (Vithaya Pangsringarm) shows no favours and uses a variety of different techniques to inflict harm upon pretty much everyone. Chang literally cuts a swathe through the various reprobates who inhabit the seedy world of violence, drugs and prostitution in which our characters are entrenched. With the possible exception of Julian, it could be said that everybody gets what they deserve, so it is hard to feel sorry for those who fall vicitim to Chang’s vengeance.
The film looks fabulous, the neon glow of Thailand’s streetscapes and back alleys is mesmerising and creates atmosphere in spades, even romanticising, to some extent, the seedy world in which we find ourselves. In fact, there is a real tranquillity in many of the scenes that serves as a stark contrast to the bursts of violence. Likewise, the soundscape is exceptional, in large part compensating for the lack of dialogue. If nothing else, Refn has made something that looks and sounds beautiful, which is more than can be said for a lot of other filmmakers. All the performances are understated and, despite the considerable moral ambiguity which all of the characters possess, it is Crystal who comes across as most heinous of all. It really seems as though the excessive vulgarity of this character was created purely to shock. Scott Thomas does seem to relish the opportunity to play so much against type but when Crystal refers to Mai as Julian’s ‘cum dumpster’, you can’t help but feel that all involved are trying a bit too hard to outrage the audience. Overall though, the film has plenty of merit and there is no doubt that Refn is a skilled filmmaker, as anybody who has seen Drive and his earlier works (Valhalla Rising, Bronson, Pusher) can attest.
The title of the film is interesting in that it suggests, as is played out within the narrative, that there is no place for forgiveness other than that afforded by god. Everybody must pay a price for their sins with Chang serving as judge, jury and executioner. Despite making every effort to avoid becoming ensnared in this vicious circle of punishment and payback, Julian’s unwillingness to stand up to his mother is what ultimately puts him on a collision course with Chang. Not Refn’s best work, or Gosling’s for that matter, but a good film in many respects and certainly not worthy of the brouhaha that has accompanied its release.