When his older brother and partner-in-crime is murdered in a bloody act of vengeance, Bangkok-based drug smuggler Julian (Ryan Gosling) is entrusted with the task of killing those responsible by his foul-mouthed and venomous mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). What follows is a neon drenched, slow moving Freudian nightmare of Lynchian coherence that poses more questions than it answers.
After the surprise mainstream success of 2011’s Drive, director Nicholas Winding Refn reteams with Gosling in this Thai western, and admittedly it is admirable of the two to deviate so wildly from their previous collaboration. Gone are the dreamy soundtrack, the longing looks, the romanticised quest. Only God Forgives’ Julian is, like most of the film itself, an intimidatingly unreadable creature of little to no words whose motivations, dreams and hopes are all up for the guessing. Vithaya Pansringarm’s corrupt police lieutenant Chang casts an equally prominent yet baffling shadow over the narrative. With a fondness for swords and singing, Chang, like Julian, is given no real past, with both warring antagonists being presented more as sketches of ideologies than actual characters.
Nicely offsetting this is Kristin Scott Thomas’ poisonous mother figure Crystal, the perma-tanned, sharp-tongued Lady Macbeth. One of the most enjoyable (although perhaps that’s the wrong word) scenes of Only God Forgives is when Refn simply allows Crystal to drink and chain smoke her way through one of the most awkward meet-the-parents dinners captured on screen. Scenes like this, and Crystal’s sheer aura of awfulness elevates the film out of many a dull moment.
Despite Scott Thomas’s best efforts however, Only God Forgives simply never gets you to invest enough to care about what happens. Sure the film is basically about a bunch of villains all out to off each other, but on top of this, the bizarrely stilted direction, emphasis on visuals and overly stationary compositions leaves the whole film feeling like an assembly of video game cut scenes. The dialogue is clipped, whenever there actually is any, and each character has a grand total of around 3 facial expressions. But damned if they aren’t beautifully lit!
Which is a shame, because the atmosphere is all there. Throbbing like a hangover, Larry Smith’s cinematography is both inviting yet seedy, classy yet crass. The colour palette of the whole film is simply and undeniably stunning. Add to this Cliff Martinez’s almost tangible score which displays more dimensions than the characters on screen. The combination of the two is immersive and claustrophobic, but unfortunately feels squandered on a narrative that refuses to match its excellence.
Only God Forgives is a heavy handed string of motifs and themes which never really takes you anywhere new in its brief but beautifully presented 90 minutes. That being said, it wholeheartedly offers itself up on a plate for discussion, which is a certainly a commendable feat.