Only God Forgives (2013)

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Tom Burke, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam

Directed by: Nicholas Winding Refn

Rating: 1 2 and a half

Ryan Gosling as Julian in Only God Forgives

They tried to warn me. All those critics who gave Only God Forgives zero stars and damned it pretentious, soulless, dull, an unforgivable waste of ninety minutes.

But then... but then there were the good reviews, that hailed it as gripping, fascinating and the film of the year so far. And anyway, this is Nicholas Winding Refn, the man who gave us Bronson and Drive. How bad could it be?

Set in Bangkok, the film centres around fight club owner and drug dealer Julian (Ryan Gosling), a man so taciturn he makes Drive's nameless hero seem positively chatty, and who appears to run his businesses entirely through a series of pointed nods, jaw clenched tighter than a boxer's fist.

When his elder brother Billy is murdered for raping a sixteen-year-old girl, his terrifying mother, Crystal (played startlingly and completely against type by Kristin Scott Thomas) sweeps into town like an avenging angel, furious at her younger son's refusal to retaliate. With her bleach-blonde locks and orange talons, her inappropriately Oedipal body language and squirmingly shocking dinner table small talk, she truly is the archetypal castrating matriarch from hell, making Gemma from Sons of Anarchy look like Marion from Happy Days.

Vithaya Pansringarm as Chang in Only God Forgives

Crystal's meddling brings Julian into the sights of dour, vigilante cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who, in this lawless city of endless neon night, appears to be at liberty to roam the streets with a samurai sword concealed down the back of his shirt (effective but surely uncomfortable?) meting out his own style of rough justice as the mood takes him. He is the level end boss to beat all level end bosses (or, possibly, God?) and, as in all the best (and worst) Thai martial arts movies, a final confrontation is inevitable. It doesn't end well – and not just because Ryan Gosling keeps his shirt on…

Like A History of Violence with subtitles, Only God Forgives is a depressing study of how violence can only beget further violence, and how, once embraced, it’s well nigh impossible to escape its bloody clutches. Unlike Cronenberg’s gripping thriller, however, it's, well, kinda boring.

Kristin Scott Thomas, terrifying as Crystal in Only God Forgives

To be fair, I'm not sure Only God Forgives is a Bad Film per se. The two leads are great, Gosling despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he has hardly anything to say: it's all in the eyes and that jawbone. Each scene is beautifully shot, artfully styled and superbly lit in dramatic chiaroscuro tones of blood red and tiger orange: freeze any frame and you're left with a perfect still. Or, you know, don't bother to freeze the frame, because a lot of time characters are just standing there, doing very little.

My main problem with this film (aside from the fact that I slept through the bit where someone gets their eyeball gouged out – how is that even possible?) is that I simply didn't care what happened to any of the characters. There was only one moment when I actually felt concern as to whether someone lived or died. That's about one minute out of ninety. I know.

The one thing the polarised reviews have agreed on is that Only God Forgives is 'Lynchean'. If that means slow, confusing and punctuated by random karaoke performances then, yup, this film is Lynchean as they come. But if you're expecting an emotional rollercoaster ride along the lines of Wild at Heart, you can forget it. Yes, it's violent, but if you're only in it for the action, note that the grisly bits are surrounded by 75 minutes of people walking slowly down corridors, staring into space and looking at their hands, then go rent The Raid instead. Disappointed? With this cast and this director? You betcha. If Chang does represent God in the movie, he sure ain't forgiving anyone. And neither am I.

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