Only God Forgives (2013) Movie Review

Flay Otters

Only-God-Forgives1Now, 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.

4 / 5 stars     


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      1. Pat Noon November 27, 2013 at 10:56 pm

        YAWN. Miike Lite at best.

      2. Graham Landers November 27, 2013 at 10:56 pm

        It is brutal, but doesn’t make much sense. The story is weak.

        • Hero Toxiko
          Hero Toxiko November 28, 2013 at 5:10 am


      3. Ivaa Nixiki November 27, 2013 at 10:58 pm

        Didnt like it at all!!!

      4. Sean Aitken November 27, 2013 at 10:58 pm

        Movie is hot garbage.

      5. Pat Noon November 27, 2013 at 11:01 pm

        Also, apparently these days all it takes to get your film compared to David Lynch is to have somebody sing on a tiny stage with velvet curtains

      6. Dab-Rag Jacob On Ice November 27, 2013 at 11:02 pm

        I loved it, it’s a challenging sort of experience, certainly not interested in any sort of conventional storytelling narrative stuff, but conjures up quite an intense, deviously ambiguous sense of menace & atmosphere. I found it to be sorta playful too, albeit in a totally vile and depraved way. More for fans of Valhalla Rising than Drive, for sure.

        • Dab-Rag Jacob On Ice
          Dab-Rag Jacob On Ice November 27, 2013 at 11:04 pm

          Helps to watch a second or third time, actually, if you’ve the guts (and patience).

      7. William Armentrout November 27, 2013 at 11:04 pm

        I liked it, but I thought that both Drive and Vahalla Rising were much better movies.

      8. James Reed November 27, 2013 at 11:04 pm

        Reminds me of “drive” … great potential… just needed more spark

      9. Domenico Nico Lane November 27, 2013 at 11:10 pm

        The movie was short but moved so slow. Visually stunning. Vibrant shots. Awful movie

      10. Vincent Anthony Rodriguez-Lozano November 27, 2013 at 11:10 pm

        Absolutely awful film.

      11. Erwin de Koning November 27, 2013 at 11:10 pm

        Insanely brutal? hahaha

      12. G Scott Hughes November 27, 2013 at 11:17 pm

        Vahalla Rising was a turd.

      13. Nicole Whyte Ralston November 27, 2013 at 11:31 pm

        Worst movie I ever wasted 90 mins on … garbage

      14. Ross Mitchell November 28, 2013 at 12:13 am

        The best movie so far this year.

      15. John Young November 28, 2013 at 12:46 am

        Horrible, made zero sense, made me want to chop my cock off

      16. Joslynn Moreno November 28, 2013 at 1:13 am

        Araceli Del Rio

      17. Mania Shiryaeva November 28, 2013 at 2:21 am

      18. Michael Grayson November 28, 2013 at 3:19 am

        I was insanely disappoint.

      19. Shawn Avalos November 28, 2013 at 3:21 am

        I hear the story is difficult to understand. They brutally is awesome but you really have to listen to every detail.

      20. Laurie Neil Whitley November 28, 2013 at 3:25 am

        … Lords of Salem went all Thai on us!

      21. Michael Huss November 28, 2013 at 3:34 am

        Great work visually. But the rest sucked.

      22. Hero Toxiko November 28, 2013 at 5:09 am

        It was awesome.

      23. Nick Stec November 28, 2013 at 6:05 am

        I guess movies can’t have symbolism or be watched more than once…..This movie is gonna be huge one day.

      24. Anthony Von Slaughter November 28, 2013 at 6:30 am

        knockout game victim

      25. fred November 28, 2013 at 7:40 am

        Started watchibg it on the plane …easy ro say 15 min in i switched movie and never looked back.. sooo bad

      26. fred November 28, 2013 at 7:40 am

        Started watchibg it on the plane …easy ro say 15 min in i switched movie and never looked back.. sooo bad

      27. John Shaw November 28, 2013 at 10:34 am

        It is the best movie I have seen comeout this year. It is a very measured film and seems like a metephore against American sensibilities. No matter how bad you are, how much you think you will get away with, sooner or later gonna cut you down. The film is like a good fuck: well paced, intense and rewarding.

      28. John Shaw November 28, 2013 at 10:36 am

        All of you that say it doesn’t make sense, must be either cinematicly illiterate, or just fuckin stoopid.

        • Ndlazi Sibusiso Ronald
          Ndlazi Sibusiso Ronald November 28, 2013 at 11:32 am

          Like he directed Bronson only so few people understand this genius.

      29. Harry Stuart Chalcraft November 28, 2013 at 1:03 pm

        I liked the film, it was very strange though – I didn’t think it would end where it did either.

      30. Juan Andres Velez Salazar November 28, 2013 at 2:43 pm

        Awesome movie, its like a fine recut of Drive (2011)

      31. Christopher Mitchell November 28, 2013 at 4:44 pm

        I didn’t like it as much as Drive