Now, from the start it must be pointed out that Only God Forgives is not a horror movie by anyone’s measure of the term. However, the horrific nature of story itself as well as the arresting violence and moral murk in which it wallows are, in my mind, qualifiers. In any event, Only God Forgives is the follow-up film to director Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film, Drive which also stars Ryan Gosling. The films are quite different though, with Drive following a central narrative and plot structure that could be done by a dozen less competent directors and achieve a cohesive film. Only God Forgives, however, doesn’t really follow a direct, strict narrative rulebook and instead relies heavily on style and atmosphere as well as unspoken, un-setup tension to achieve its ends. The result is a hypnotizing, pulsing, strange film that took me a good day-to-day and a half to really get my head around.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that the reactions to this film since is infamous screening at Cannes earlier in the year have been on the lower end of positive. Having had a couple of days to sit with it in my head, I really don’t know what the deal is. I would imagine many were expecting ‘Drive 2’ or something along those lines and when they got a far less accessible film without the hero’s quest as they might’ve been expecting, they poo-pooed it. And really, that is fine. To each their own. I remember reading a pretentious hack of a writer out of San Francisco (I lived there for a couple of years and still read a lot of the press/writers when I can) pillory Drive when it came out and I thought at the time that this twit just didn’t get it. It wasn’t the movie’s fault that he was an idiot. But now with Only God Forgives, I don’t know that I can take that same stance with those who have written it off as some overwrought arthouse-ploitation film with nothing to say. I feel like, if that is what you took from it, ok. I can’t blame you. It isn’t an easy movie to deal with or understand or, to a further point, enjoy.
I was, however, blown away by the saturated, luminous sequences played against the stark, almost sterile scenes of wordless action that meld together (in front of an excellent score by Cliff Martinez) to create this dreamscape of a movie in which to tell a murky, far-from-simple morality tale. In some small ways it reminded me of parts of I Saw The Devil in the way it forces you to deconstruct your ideas about morality and of justice. But again, there is not a strong plot backbone to be had so you must rely more on what you interpret things to be, what things mean as opposed to being told through a more expected, standard narrative structure.
The story follows Julian (Gosling), a shady but calm-type character who runs a Thai boxing club as a front for drug running into Bangkok along with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). For the near silent-calm that Julian exhibits, his brother Billy is quite the opposite and seems to seethe from the moment we first meet him. Tom Burke brings a menace to Billy that is palatable, unsettling. His downfall comes quickly after a turn with a street escort goes badly and then fatal. It is at this point we meet Chang, the local police constable, who steps into this blood soaked interlude to orchestrate a retribution for Billy’s actions that feels barbaric as it does justified. When that spirals out of control, it is at Chang’s hand that justice is handled, not in a courtroom or in front of a judge, but on the business end of a very sharp knife blade. This sets the stage for Julian to have to step into this fray and avenge his brother’s death. There is clearly a larger meaning here, because Billy’s actions which brought about his death are certainly not virtuous and defensible by any means but it is more the message, the situation at hand that forces Julian into it. This was absolutely fascinating to me because it doesn’t paint Julian as an uncaring, evil person in so much as it just paints his as having no choice in the matter. He doesn’t break down, he doesn’t get emotional, he just does it.
This is hammered home by the arrival of his overbearing, contemptible, vitriol-spitting mother who appears on the scene decked in out designer clothes for someone half her age, leather-tanned skin and a sneer that’d spook a bear. All this delivered, against type by Kristin Scott Thomas who really gets lost in the role. This woman, Crystal, is a poisonous force of nature and sets about the chain of events that will bring the whole mess to a head. Without her involvement, I could see the whole story going a different way but it is because of her involvement that we see the grander meaning in the whole affair. Intermixed with this is Julian’s bizarre, fractured relationship with a lounge performer/entertainer Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) which skirts between unrequited love to dark-side Pretty Woman territory seemingly at random. It is powerful and uncomfortable but gives some sense of humanity in the face of near-endless ugliness on the part of all the players involved.
The film wanders through a give-and-take of bodies and revenge killings and a near-hopelessness about the outcome that is felt not only by those involved but in those watching. But it is in this hopelessness that there is a meaning to be had, not a clever, simple, easy to package one but a messier, less desirable one. In fact, the film gives you enough to try to piece together who each person really is, what they really represent and how all the action of the film fits together, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it. If you chose to find a larger moral meaning in the events of the film, there is a lot there to support that. If you chose, instead to take the whole thing as a bloody revenge story high on style but low on plot substance, you can do that too. You can really take it any which way. I have my ideas (somewhat validated in a recent Q and A with the director) but I won’t lay them out here as I fear it would ruin some of the mystery of it.
But don’t take the word of many a critic that writes this film off because I found a lot to admire, to appreciate and to marvel at in the midst of the blood and violence and meanness on its surface.