Review: Only God Forgives


The question is often put to me by friends ‘why do you love film so much?’.

The answer is simple . I’m not sure that another art form exists that can be so divisive. Start a conversation with film loving friends about what the greatest film ever made is and sit back and watch the fireworks to see what I mean.

Only God Forgives is a prime example of this quality. To date opinions have been right across the spectrum and reviews are ranging from 5 to 1 star. I’m  not sure there has been a more divisive film in recent times.

Ryan Gosling plays Julian a Bangkok based drug dealing Thai boxing club owner. When Julian’s brother kills a prostitute, the avenging angel police officer Chang allows the father to kill his daughters murderer, then restores order by chopping off the man’s right hand.

Julian’s mother Crystal (played in spectacularly sinister form by Kristen Scott Thomas), arrives in Bangkok to collect her son’s body. She orders Julian to find his killers and raise hell.

Increasingly obsessed with the Angel of Vengeance, Julian challenges him to a boxing match, hoping that by defeating him he might find spiritual release but Chang triumphs. The stage is then set for a bloody journey through betrayal and vengeance towards a final confrontation and the possibility of redemption.

I was warned by some friends that this was 90 minutes of my life I would never get back but to be honest I really enjoyed the film. Although to say I ‘enjoyed’ this film is perhaps a strange phrase to use.

From start to finsih this is a tough watch. the violence portrayed is graphic as is the choice of language (Kristin Scott Thomas said in interview they had to do multiple takes of one particular scene as she couldn’t bring herself to say some of the lines). Dialogue when not including profanities is scarce, which for some is problematic, but in some ways that is the beauty of it. Winding Refn has made a film that says more in the silence than it does in dialogue. For example Gosling constantly staring at his hands to some peers was a huge point of frustration. To me this was a clear indication of a character who is scared of the potential his hands have to do carry out evil. It is for this reason he fantasises of his hands being removed as it is only in doing this that true release will come for him.

No character in this film is likeable. Normally that would be a problem but that is the point. All cahracters in this film are flawed and all have committeed atrocities in some form. The deeds carried out by the characters in this film leave them only with darkness as comfort which is why Winding Refn chooses the neon illumination of the Bangkok night to allow us to see them.

Only God Forgives is a tough watch and to many may be considered difficult to engage with. This however is a film that has many questions to ask around justice and redemption. The major difficulty though is the manner in which the questions are poised although this does not make the questions any less valid.

Drive is far and away the more mainstream and accesible of Winding Refn and Gosling’s collaborations. Fans of Drive should know this is not a companion piece and while Drive is itself violent and a difficult watch in places Only God Forgives takes those elements to a new extreme level.

For me though it is Only God Forgives which may, after repeat viewing (if you can stomach it) and the passage of time prove to be considered as Refn’s true masterpiece.