- Only God Forgives (movie 2013) review: Starring Ryan Gosling and featuring a deliciously malevolent Kristin Scott Thomas, Nicolas Winding Refn’s sadistically violent revenge thriller is not for the uninitiated.
Only God Forgives (movie 2013) review: Nicolas Winding Refn’s remarkably good surrealistic thriller is the filmmaker’s darkest effort yet
In screenwriter-director Nicolas Winding Refn’s surrealistic revenge thriller Only God Forgives, American Julian (Drive’s Ryan Gosling) and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) run a Muay Thai boxing academy – a front for a drug-smuggling operation – in Bangkok.
Both brothers are criminally sadistic, but Billy is downright unhinged. In the movie’s first ten minutes, he attempts to buy sex from the 12-year-old daughter of a brothel owner. When denied this particular fetish, Billy rapes and senselessly murders a young female prostitute.
Led by Lieutenant Chang, the police arrive on the scene sometime later. As portrayed by Kendo fighting master Vithaya Pansringarm, Chang is an avenging angel, endowed with the ability to know the truth and mete out justice either swiftly or brutally. Or both.
Needless to say, Only God Forgives is a controversial film – hardly Nicolas Winding Refn’s first of its kind. It’s also a remarkably good thriller. But I don’t believe in god, so that’s easy for me to assert.
David Lynch & Alejandro Jodorowsky influences
Curiously, not a lot happens in Only God Forgives. Every sequence is captured in long, surreal takes where everyone moves very deliberately. The scenes are lit primarily in red, blue, or green, and feature sparse uncoded dialogue. But notwithstanding its terse, unambiguous speech, Refn’s thriller could be called Lynchian. Indeed, Only God Forgives has shades of Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Mulholland Dr., and Lost Highway.
Having said that, Refn refers to most directly the Chilean-French surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky, especially in those moments that speak to the spiritual or imply otherworldliness. Of course, David Lynch has been referring to Jodorowsky for 40 years, so the lineage comes by legitimately.
In any case, Only God Forgives is more “Freudian” than anything else. Refn is directing with his id, unchecked and unfiltered. When things do happen in the movie they are unusually sadistic. And although we see less on screen than is implied, plenty is shown. Chang, for one, is adept with a short sharp sword that he seems to draw out of thin air in order to dispatch justice – of the eye-for-an-eye sort, though it’s limbs the police lieutenant usually severs.
That helps to make Only God Forgives the darkest entry in what I call the filmmaker’s “blue period.” Thus far, the label encompasses his entire career, as each of Refn’s movies has been a spiral into a black hole of despair, self-loathing, and/or nightmares, including the oft-imitated Pusher series (check out Luis Prieto’s 2012 remake of the first Pusher movie) and the little-seen but very well-received Fear X, a descent into horror starring John Turturro that has become a cult favorite among the Fangoria set.
Something else worth noting is that there is a good deal of misogyny in Refn’s movies and Only God Forgives is no exception. Nearly all women seen on screen are sex workers who are never treated or referred to kindly.
Then there is Kristin Scott Thomas as Julian and Billy’s mother, a haughty Lady Macbeth with a foul mouth and an evil heart. Upon hearing that Billy was killed for raping and murdering a young girl, she responds, “I’m sure he had his reasons.” It’s a delicious line as spoken by a malevolent being.
And in all fairness, Refn is at heart a horror movie fanboy, and horror movies, no matter how sophisticated, have never been bastions of feminism.
Not unexpectedly, Only God Forgives has divided audiences, as Nicolas Winding Refn movies are prone to do. It led to walk-outs at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was in the running for the Palme d’Or, but it then went on to win the top prize at the Sydney Film Festival.
I saw Only God Forgives at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, where a small contingent left in evident contempt, mumbling something about “self-indulgent crap.” This even after the director himself introduced the film as a project imagined through a “sleepless three-day meth binge,” which to me seemed a fair enough warning.
Of note, the title is to be taken literally. The slight, provocative plot and the movie’s precise characterizations are meant to accentuate this idea: Only god forgives.
Only God Forgives (movie 2013) cast & crew
Direction & Screenplay: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Sahajak Boonthanakit.
Cinematography: Larry Smith.
Film Editing: Matthew Newman.
Music: Cliff Martinez.
Production Design: Beth Mickle.
Producers: Lene Børglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent Maraval, and Hanne Palmquist.
Production Companies: Space Rocket Nation | Gaumont | Wild Bunch | Motel Movies | Film i Väst | DR/Flimklubben | Nordisk Film ShortCut.
Distributors: Le Pacte (France) | Icon Film Distribution (United Kingdom) | The Weinstein Company (United States).
Running Time: 90 min.
Countries: Denmark | France | United States | Sweden | Belgium.
“Only God Forgives (Movie 2013): Sadistically Violent Thriller” notes & references
Only God Forgives box office via boxofficemojo.com.
Only God Forgives movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.
Ryan Gosling Only God Forgives movie image: Space Rocket Nation | Gaumont | Wild Bunch.
“Only God Forgives (Movie 2013): Sadistically Violent Thriller” last updated in April 2023.