‘Drive‘, the first collaboration between director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling, was one of my favorite films of 2011. It was original, fresh, had a killer soundtrack and a colorful cast of characters. I own the Blu-ray, the soundtrack album, and even stickers from the movie. Needless to say, when I heard that Refn was making another film in the same vein called ‘Only God Forgives’, I was excited with pure joy and couldn’t wait to see it. Not only would the movie star Ryan Gosling again and amp up the violence and suspense, but it would take place in Thailand and pack in enough blood for two films. Man, was I proven dead-wrong about my expectations and came out sorely disappointed.
‘Only God Forgives’ is less than 90 minutes, but feels like three hours as we journey through a slow-moving, neon-laced maze of corridors, violent stare-downs and several brutal murder scenes that would make Tarantino blush. Mixing a bit of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, Refn takes us to the Thailand underworld, where we meet Julian (Gosling), a drug lord who fronts as a boxing promoter. In the first five minutes of the film, Julian’s big brother Billy (Tom Burke) decides that he wants to rape a 14-year-old girl. When he can’t, he goes on a violent rampage until he gets a 16-year-old girl, and then ends up brutally killing her anyway.
After the murder, a senior police chief known as Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) – who dresses like a priest – acts as judge, jury and executioner to his cases. In this particular one, he allows the father of the dead 16-year-old to kill Billy, but also punishes the father for allowing his daughter to be a prostitute, by way of chopping his arm off.
The only saving grace for me in the film is Kristen Scott-Thomas, who plays Julian and Billy’s mother, Crystal, the head Mob boss back in the States. She arrives in Thailand to identify and pick up her son’s body, and we see her true colors once she arrives at the posh hotel where the desk clerk won’t allow her to check in early. Once settled, Crystal sees Julian and forces him to get revenge on his brother’s killer. From here, Julian must track down and find Chang before he and his fellow police officers catch up to him and Crystal. What follows is a slow-paced story that seems to move in slow motion with dream sequences and a couple of ultra-violent scenes, including a poor victim being stabbed in the eyes, another burned by hot cooking oil, and much more.
One of the best scenes gives us a little bit of background on Julian’s childhood. When he brings a call girl as his date to a fancy dinner with his mother, Crystal immediately figures out that she’s not his girlfriend, but a prostitute, and asks her specifically, “How many cocks can you entertain with your cum dumpster?” This is followed by a graphic description of her two sons’ penises and why Julian is always jealous of his brother’s bigger size.
While Scott-Thomas may be the most entertaining character due to her impeccable delivery and funny lines, Chang is the most intriguing. He floats across the screen graciously as if he were the angel of death. He never loses his temper, and carries out his executions as if they were the norm. He also follows-up each day with a karaoke number in front of his fellow police officers.
Gosling literally only has a dozen lines in the film, and spends the rest of the time staring at the camera.
The camerawork is great and the movie as a whole looks incredible. It reminds me a bit of Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’, with tons of Stedicam shots that weave in and out of long corridors. However, that’s really the only aspect of the film I enjoyed. Fans of super-violent movies might want to catch this one purely for that aspect, but for the rest of us, feel free to skip it.