Twitter Plot Summary: A smuggler in Bangkok is tasked by his mother with finding and killing those responsible for his brother’s death.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Key Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Gordon Brown, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Tom Burke.
Five Point Summary:
1. Billy is a really nasty guy. I hope he gets his comeuppance.
2. Billy got his comeuppance.
3. “Wanna fight?” This will end one of two ways…
4. Seriously, where does this guy keep his sword? It just appears out of nowhere.
5. Karaoke? I don’t follow.
After Drive, all the signs seemed to indicate that the next film by Nicolas Winding Refn was going to be spectacular. Drive oozed style and directorial flourish and padded out a novella to feature length, admittedly via an extensive use of slow motion. Only God Forgives takes all of that and bundles it into a Thai revenge thriller, as Julian (Gosling), a drug smuggler living in Bangkok, is tasked by his mother to track down and kill the people responsible for the death of his brother (Burke).
Heavy on religious allegory (Change is the Angel of Vengeance) and Greek mythology, it’s a bit of an odd one, it has to be said. The long, dreamlike sequences that were common throughout Drive are also used here, yet here it feels like you’re supposed to be drawing something from the subtext from every lingering, feels-like-it’s-in-slow-motion shot. It’s languorous, make no mistake, which is both a blessing and a curse. There’s very little plot stretched over 90 minutes. When combined with the slow, deliberate pacing it ends up making the film feel much longer than it actually is.
If the film has anything going in its favour, is how amazingly stylish it looks. Bathed in heavy shades of red for the majority of the story, it comes as quite a shock when we get the odd glimpse of normal daylight. Refn uses the trick of juxtaposing characters in two different locations and making it seem as though they’re in the same room, linking their thoughts and actions thematically if not through direct interaction. On the other hand are the surreal moments where slack-armed, sword-wielding cop Chang does karaoke in front of an audience of uniformed police officers. Chang is an interesting villain, if he is indeed a villain. He spends most of his time staring into the middle distance, his arms slack at his sides like Captain Picard in Star Trek TNG. On one occasion he runs down a street, in another he has a fight with Ryan Gosling. He’s also a canny karaoke singer and seemingly keeps his sword tucked away in the same N-space that Optimus Prime’s trailer disappears to in the Transformers cartoon.
Gosling, despite being the face of the film, has very little to do. After his extensive albeit brooding performance in Drive, most of the story is driven by Chang and Crystal (Scott Thomas), Julian and Billy’s mother. Scott Thomas gives the best performance in the film, a glacial, pernicious and vengeful presence decked out in bleached-blonde hair and heavy make-up. She is a thoroughly vile person, Jeremy Kyle would have a field day with her on his show. At the same time she’s also very much a love-to-hate character, although given the lack of any tangible personality from any other character we meet it’s damning with faint praise.
The violence, in my eyes, wasn’t as extreme as expected. Yes, it’s thoroughly unpleasant, but Refn could have gone much further with it if he wanted to. There’s one particularly nasty torture scene that could have you wincing, but most of that is hinted violence rather than a physical demonstration. This is arguably worse than seeing it in full glory. More concerning is the attitudes of the speaking characters. Billy is incredibly unlikeable as he threatens women and declares that he wants to sleep with a 14 year old girl. When this is not available to him he turns violent.
Julian is violent along similar lines, however he appears to have a moral centre guiding him, for the most part. He will only inflict pain on those who are deserving of it. Essentially if you’re a child or a woman he’ll leave you alone. It’s clear that both Julian and Billy have a lot of issues, particularly based on how Crystal acts around Julian and how she talks of Billy. The Oedipus myth is front and centre in this tale, although I doubt Oedipus would have run a Thai kickboxing gym.
It took some mulling, but on reflection it’s not a bad film at all. Bonkers, yes, and a somewhat unexpected turn after Refn’s previous film, but it’s engaging if not incredibly deep. It’s doubtful that many will be able to stick with it to the end, much like Spring Breakers earlier this year, it has already had a similar polarising effect on audiences. Add it to the Marmite category, you’ll either love it or hate it. For those who appreciate allegory and symbolism over plot, then there is plenty here for you.
Favourite scene: Julian VS Chang in a fist fight.
Quote: “It’s a little more complicated than that, mother.”
“Meaning what, exactly?”
“Billy raped and killed a sixteen year old girl.”
“I’m sure he had his reasons.”
Silly Moment: *Spoilers* Some guys are sent to take out Chang as he eats in a diner. They shoot everybody EXCEPT for the police. Go figure.