Only God Forgives wants to exist as a pulpy action film, but comes across as a sadomasochistic nightmare with the most brooding performance I’ve seen all year. Ryan Gosling’s Julian is a criminal living in Bangkok in the seedy underworld of drug-dealing, fight-organizing, and whoring, escaping from the United States and his brutal presence of a mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). After his brother kills a teenage prostitute and is killed by that girl’s father, Julian hopes to seek revenge, but falls into the wrath of a retired cop, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Chang wields a samurai sword and dismantles his enemies with such precision, sometimes even amused by his actions. This leads to a face-off near the end of the film that the movie begs to advertise, yet its conclusion comes a while after that, albeit with a lot less sense than expected.
The film’s gratuitous portrayal of violence is disarming and excessively ambiguous, with some scenes beginning with intentions that are vague but ending with a confusing mess that doesn’t even fall under abstract. There are times when it feels like it wants to be a David Lynch affair of sorts, only that filmmaker has a grasp of making abstract have a purpose; here, we’re given scenes that include but are not limited to: a woman pleasuring herself in front of a tied-up Julian as she imagines him being mutilated; Chang cutting open a man’s body so we can see his ribs protruding from the wound; Chang pinning a man’s arms and legs with knives before slicing his eyeballs with a blade; and a young girl having blood sprayed on her face as a man is shot to death in front of her.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is not only my second favorite film from 2011, but it’s a film I’ve watched countless times and consider one of my favorites. It’s one of the best noirs I’ve seen with a true understanding of genre and stylistic filmmaking. Yet Only God Forgives is such a gruesome mess of a feature, with Gosling barely saying anything but moping around and occasionally having outbursts that feel forced. Refn’s direction is beautiful at times and the cinematography and lighting are breathtaking. It’s any wonder that they’re surrounded by a pointless piece of filmmaking that doesn’t deliver any sense of entertainment or merit. Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance is wonderfully overdone, the only highlight of the film.
Grade: ★½ (out of 5)