Film Review: Only God Forgives

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Plot: In the criminal underworld of Bangkok, Julian (Ryan Gosling) must decide whether or not to take vengeance on the men responsible for his brother’s (Tom Burke) death, despite his heinous crime.

Only God Forgives reunites director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling, who last collaborated on Drive, my favorite film of 2011. Did Only God Forgives match the brilliance of that movie? No. But the two films definitely felt like they were in the same universe. Let me just say this – if you hated Drive, stay far away from this movie. This is basically Drive on steroids. I think Ryan Gosling had 5-6 lines of dialogue. And if you were annoyed by the quiet contemplative moments in that film, wait till you get a load of this. But while those elements worked ten times over in Drive, Refn stumbles a bit here. That’s not to say he didn’t pull off moments of greatness though. The best way to describe Only God Forgives is simply that it’s inconsistent. But with any movie starring Ryan Gosling, we have to start with him.

I’m not going to pretend like I live in a cave and not recognize that Ryan Gosling gives the same performance in this film that he does in Drive or The Place Beyond The Pines. It’s the ‘quiet intensity, I don’t say anything’ performance. I really don’t care though. He’s so phenomenal playing those characters, I could watch it in twenty more movies. He does have one line delivery here though that will absolutely floor you. What separates Julian from those other characters though is that Julian isn’t the bad ass you think he is. Yes, we’ll see him look intense and scary, but he’s a much more terrified character than in the past. Gosling also isn’t in the film as much as you’d think, and the real show stealer was actually Kristin Scott Thomas as Julian’s mother Crystal.

I had no idea where this film was going in the first fifteen minutes. While I was enjoying the imagery and the way it was shot, these quiet reflective scenes went on a little too long, whereas Drive knew exactly when to progress the story. It’s not until Kristin Scott Thomas comes into play where the movie delivers normal dialogue driven scenes that move the plot along. Thomas is absolutely stellar in this role. This character should be in the running for worst mother of the year. She is chillingly evil. There’s one scene in particular at dinner where Julian brings a fake girlfriend, Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), to meet his mother. Cynthia just lays into both of them, and it’s here where you finally figure out what this movie is truly about. It’s an amazing scene from Kristin Scott Thomas who gives an Oscar worthy performance.

The film is chock-full of great individual moments like this one. The other major character is Chang, a cop played wonderfully by Vithaya Pansringarm. He is the main opposition to Julian and Crystal, and a big reason why Julian’s brother Billy was killed at the beginning of the movie. Chang is basically an evil Batman, with a couple very quirky character traits. There’s a torture scene delivered by Chang that will really knock you on your ass. The violence in this film is brutal as hell, but it’s not the cartoonish Tarantino violence where you’ll get blood on your clothes in the first three rows. It’s more realistic, making the violence a little more cringe worthy.

But as great as these individual moments are, the film just isn’t as strong as a whole. There’s a couple throwaway side plots, including Julian’s relationship with Mai, a prostitute. The pacing is also all over the place. There are times where it’s excruciatingly slow, then will suddenly move at Road Runner like speed. There’s a climactic fight at the end that just happens out of no where with no build up whatsoever. What Refn does well though is every time you’re about to scream at the overbearing artsy tone, Kristin Scott Thomas returns and brings it back to normalcy. The film is also very short, only about 90 minutes long. Had this been another 15-20 minutes, the pacing issues would have been much more glaring.

This is a really tough film to critique, because while I recognize its flaws, I’d be lying if I didn’t say this left an impression on me. Despite his lack of dialogue, we’re able to get a pretty interesting character study of Julian, who isn’t just acting crazy for the hell of it. The film explains why he acts this way. The lighting and imagery in this movie are also gorgeous to look at, but unlike the random Tree of Life or The Fountain, it actually serves a purpose. Refn brings back composer Cliff Martinez who delivers on another powerful score. Only God Forgives reminds me of 2001’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. While it speaks to me, I get why people are going to hate it. Despite its weaknesses, the stuff that works, works really well. If you don’t like intense quiet character moments, imagery over dialogue, and films that are dark and unpleasant, then stay away. Otherwise, Only God Forgives is something that should be seen.

Rating: 8 out of 10 (Great)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.