Only God Forgives is a nightmare. A nightmare in the purest form; filled with images that do not always connect but still manage to frighten. It is a fevered dream consumed by monsters, each one more gruesome than the next. There are no characters to cheer for, no one to even cry for. Everyone navigates through the neon coated slum of Thailand with a cold almost lifeless demeanour.
It is a dream world that only the most harden souls would find comfort in, and director Nicolas Winding Refn would not have it any other way. Unfortunately, there will be many viewers who will refuse to travel down Refn’s dark rabbit hole. Those who were introduced to Refn’s work through his stylish 80’s inspired thriller Drive are in for a shock. This film is actually where Refn is most comfortable, being stylishly abstract and loving every minute of it. Although there are subtle similarities to Drive, the film feels more like the dark love child of Refn’s Valhalla Rising and the Pusher trilogy.
Once again working in the familiar world of drug dealers and questionable cops who play by their own warped set of morals, the grimy underworld has never looked so good. Only God Forgives takes a dreamlike approach to the classic tale of revenge. The big difference here though is that, like any nightmare, Refn opts to tell his tale through images and sounds that do not always make sense. There is very little dialogue heard in the film, and what is actually said is either inaudible or delivered in a cold lifeless manner. Due to this sparse approach we only get to know the characters on a surface level. This decision will surely put off some viewers looking for more substance in the characters. However, in the context of this hellish dream world, it actually fits the overall tone nicely. The more you know about the characters, the more disgusted by them you will be. Like many shots in the film suggest, you do not want to go into the dark room at the end of the long red hallway as only bad things can come of it.
Early on in the film Billy (Tom Burke) utters that it is “time to meet the devil” before commencing for a night on the town. This poses an interesting question that simmers throughout the film, who is the real devil in this hell that the characters live in? Billy’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) and brother, Julian (Ryan Gosling) both want vengeance for Billy’s death, but have vastly different views in regards to how far to take their revenge. When Julian finds out that it was Billy’s despicable actions over the course of the night that led to his death, Julian is hesitant to murder his brother’s killer. Crystal blissfully dismisses Billy’s vulgar actions as something “he must have had a reason for”, and sets her sights not only on Billy’s killer, but also the cop, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who orchestrated the whole thing.
Though Only God Forgives sets up Chang to be an angel of death, who seems to magically pullout a samurai sword whenever judgment needs to be passed, Refn questions if Chang is truly worse than either Billy or Crystal? What makes Chang such a fascinating, and scary, character is his reactionary approach to things. The karaoke loving cop never seeks out trouble, but is quick to exact his torturous brand of justice when provoked. All the characters who encounter him are given a choice, whether they realize it or not, and Chang does not hesitate to punish them if they make the wrong decision in his eyes. Thanks to Vithaya Pansringarm’s brilliant performance, it is Chang’s often calm and silent demeanor that other characters, and the audience for that matter, fear the most.
Along with Pansringarm’s stellar work, it should be noted that Kristin Scott Thomas is marvelous as the Julian’s overbearing mother. Thomas truly embraces the villainous and exaggerated nature of the character. She ensures that you not only immediately hate Crystal, but also understand how she manages to have Julian wrapped around her finger. Speaking of Julian, the film finds Ryan Gosling in another strong silent type role similar to his character in Drive. The noticeable difference is that Julian is more of a passenger this time around rather than the driver so to speak. Julian serves as our guide in this world. He does not know how to cope in this nightmarish landscape he finds himself in. He tries to portray himself as a tough guy, but is probably the weakest character in the entire film. Even his moral code seems pale in comparison to Chang’s.
Dripping with style in every single scene, Only God Forgives is one of the best looking nightmares you will ever experience. The rich colour, note the excessive use of red in the film, pops off the screen and the framing of each scene is simply stunning. Refn creates a dark dreamlike state that would make David Lynch smile. In fact it is hard not to think of Lynch films when watching Only God Forgives; especially in regards to Refn’s abstract approach. One could imagine Lynch gleefully behind the camera during the most disturbing scene in the film, Chang’s interrogation of Byron (Byron Gibson). What makes the scene so chilling is watching the roomful of women, decked out in prom-style dresses, sitting with their eyes closed as Byron’s screams of pain get increasingly worse.
By the end of this film, some will leave the theatre scratching their heads in confusion. There will no doubt be those who leave in disgust. Only God Forgives is not an easy film to warm up to upon initial viewing. However, it is important to keep in mind that the film works best when you embrace its dreamlike nature. Nicolas Winding Refn does not want us to like these characters; this is a nightmarish world where the monsters need to be feared. In fact it can be argued that we are not to like any of the characters in his previous films due to their professions and actions, but that is a discussion for another day. One of the most polarizing films you will see all year, Only God Forgives succeeds in providing an experience that is as stylish and as cold as the characters within it. It took two viewings before the beauty of the film fully presented itself to me, though the question will ultimately be whether you have the stomach to endure it once.