In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, to witness God is to experience the devil. The grim reaper glides through the night in the form of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a corrupt police enforcer who lords over a seedy neon-dipped slumhole in Bangkok as judge, jury, and executioner. In the early moments of the film, after a thuggish American ex-pat boxing promoter named Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and kills a 16-year-old local girl, Chang steps in and allows the victim’s father a chance at brutal revenge. The grieving man takes it. This sets in motion a series of escalating retaliations involving Billy’s brother and partner Julian (Ryan Gosling) and their visiting horror-show of a mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), each bit formed to brutally triangulate Refn’s masochistic view of familial sacrifice.
Unlike Drive, Refn’s semi-hopeful ode to pure genre cinema, Only God Forgives wallows in the misery of its bleak and quasi-surrealist urban setting. Brooding characters move through shadowy spaces at a snail’s pace as if each were in the process of being defrosted from a cryogenic sleep. These human zombies barely speak, and when they do their words resemble grunts more than coherent sentences. Everyone appears to be perfectly at home living in hell, but exactly whose nightmare this belongs to is nearly always obscured. When action does occur, as with the restaurant shootout that acts as the centerpiece for the film, it’s mostly revealed in slow motion, turning even the violence of Only God Forgives into a protracted variation on Refn’s lobotomy aesthetic.
A few bizarre sequences inside a brothel involving Julian and his Thai prostitute/girlfriend hint at a more sexually psychotic form of repression and guilt. Coated in vibrant colors and texture, these disjointed “love” scenes are often complemented by a deafening score and sporadic gong beats that seem to echo from the heavens above. It’s almost too much kinetics to spare. Here, Refn isn’t interested in exploring anything beyond the surface of his own vision; he’d rather just bang the drum loudly and crush you into submission.
If anything, Only God Forgives proves that Refn is out to create something akin to a kind of red-light-district cinema. Compositions are excessively balanced and held for long amounts of time. These images are meant to be watched and desired, lusted after simply because they evoke a form of evocative skin-deep arousal. Refn ultimately fails in his efforts. The front-on shot of Kristin Scott Thomas’s serpent queen sitting ready to strike at a restaurant table engulfed with crystal ware is a perfect example of why Only God Forgives is mostly poseur filmmaking. Whatever visual impact it may inherently carry, it’s devoid of any actual character tension, relegating the vulgar key scene that follows into the territory of camp.
Style aside, Only God Forgives is of interest for an oddly compelling thematic structure that involves a series of decisions (and non-decisions) by fathers and daughters, mothers and sons. One small but harrowing example comes when Chang approaches the man responsible for setting up the aforementioned hit on the restaurant. During their muted conversation, the impending victim’s handicapped son watches on from a nearby chair. The man takes responsibility for his action but asks Chang to spare his boy. Such sacrifices and deals inevitably define Only God Forgives as a super-excessive morality play where some characters act nobly in their final moments, while others attempt to weasel out of their inevitable fate. Either way, gushers of blood are inevitable.
Finally, the duality between public and private performances (be it violence, song, or confession) is something to consider before labeling Only God Forgives a massive failure. Chang’s karaoke sequences before his police brethren are both intimate and collectively creepy, a religious ballad of sorts performed by an earthly deity. Mai’s peep show for Julian behind a wall of dangling beads is initially framed as something private, until Refn cuts to reveal other men in the room. When Julian assaults one of the men for laughing at Mai it proves that Only God Forgives is deeply concerned with the moment-to-moment shifts between closed and open spaces, and how each character invades and retreats between the two. Interestingly, Chang’s long blade often severs these spatial connections with one swipe, as in a sequence involving ice picks and sharp hairpins. Only God can permanently sever Refn’s fanatic and indulgent underworld.Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.