Only God Forgives Review


There’s little doubt that this year’s most polarising motion picture will be Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest thriller, Only God Forgives. Far bolder and unforgiving than Drive or Bronson, Refn has magnified his directorial style to its most pure example yet. So uncompromising and distinctive is Refn’s it seems his is either critically lauded or disparaged in equal measure, with these opposing reactions stemming from his previous films, expect Only God Forgives to amplify these feelings tenfold.

Contextually sparse, the film follows the aftermath of a rape and murder of an underage prostitute by Billy Thompson (Tom Burke) an American Thai Boxing trainer in Bangkok. Following his heinous act of violence he surrenders to the police, leaving himself to face the wrath of chief lawman, Lt. Chang(Vithaya Pansringarm), or as he’s more formidably known: The Angel of Vengeance. After administrating his own brand of justice, Lt Chang sets a whole chain of retribution driven events in motion between himself and Billy’s family- brother Julian (Ryan Gosling) and overbearing mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas).

For those searching for an enthralling, twisting and complex crime thriller will be sorely disappointed with Only God Forgives, in fact those who are unfamiliar with Refn’s style will be in for a shock, one which they are unlikely to enjoy. Far removed from its genre contemporaries, Refn’s films are unlike anything else being produced at the moment, for better or for worse.

Every scene is meticulously choreographed with no room for natural, impulsive movements, only rigid, static compositions that sit like a series of dramatic photographs rather than a traditional, flowing picture. The deliberately staged sequences, while beautiful, mean the actors must adhere to specific direction making their every move icily precise, reminiscent of a ritualistic set of acts that lack human input.

Visually the film is stunning due to Refn’s innovative direction; each scene is memorably brought to life through the intoxicating array of neon glows that envelope the surreal sequences taking place. While partially down to Refn’s artistic vision the vivid lighting scheme is actually a result of the director’s colour blindness and inability to see modest colouring, luckily for him it makes his film’s some of the most aesthetically striking around.

The setting of the seedy Bangkok underworld is perfect for Refn’s most admirable directorial qualities. The long panning shots down the sparse, yet ominous hallways along with the flamboyant, unbelievably beautiful karaoke bars and brothels take on a character themselves, one arguably more expressive than any of the characters who inhabit them.

Teaming up again with Cliff Martinez the soundtrack is a far darker beast than the brilliant electronic 80s fusion he produced on Drive. The slow methodical approach is helped immensely by the threatening score that thumps dread into your chest and stomach for what gruesome acts of violence are about to be committed. The eerily frantic sound coupled with measured journey down the crimson corridors is reminiscent of those menacing, endless hallway shots in The Shining.

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Refn has no trouble in creating an ambiance in his films with Only God Forgives being his best and most pure concoction, yet when it comes to story telling his method is much more open to criticism. To say Only God Forgives is emotionless, sterile and narratively defunct is to some extent valid. The actors are wooden, almost robotic in their actions- all walk with complete purpose while donning an equally rigid, soulless expression. Bar the vindictive Crystal no other characters squeeze out an ounce of emotion, almost all of the acting is introverted to be done through looks and contextual ambiance. The narrative is simple enough leaving a bubbling ocean of suggested perversion, history and inner workings that are left unexplored for the audience to ponder over long after leaving the cinema. Failing to explicitly spell out everything, Refn leaves a majority open to interpretation, cinema that makes you think is a rare treat these days and Only God Forgives is a major advocate of it.

Only recently I criticized Ryan Gosling for his brooding, silent loner typecasting and never has there been a better example to illustrate my point (read that article here:, but despite saying that it would seem his minimalist style of acting is completely at home here. Gosling’s lines probably equate to a paragraph or less so it’s left to his eyes to do the talking, whether they do or not is fairly inconclusive although it would seem that is abject looks of underlying hate fit the role perfectly. The film’s later plot developments make Gosling’s lack of outward emotion seem even more appropriate, convincingly portraying a conflicted psychopath below his apathetic exterior.

The story itself isn’t anything new in terms of the revenge tale but Refn has reworked it to something much odder and violent than the usual cinematic offerings. Arguably unnecessary the violence alone will be enough to drive many away from the film; it’s unflinching and purposefully graphic to make even the most blood thirsty viewer squint at times. Refn has stripped the plot back to leave little meaty story, meaning that when the violent crescendos are reached they have to be gruesome acts of despicable violence, anything less would deem the wonderful crafted atmosphere redundant.

Only God Forgives is far from a deep character driven thriller- to many it will be inexplicably tedious film but despite its reliance on atmospheric scene crafting there is a deeper, thought out meaning behind the film hinted at, but not explicitly spelled out, at the end. Some of the bizarre sexual scenes and surreal karaoke moments are never confirmed or denied that aid the dreamlike parallel world constructed. Its these near inexplicable moments that boarder dangerously close to obligatory shock rather than narrative merit.

When the Only God Forgives was previewed at Cannes it was met by a rapture of applause by one half of the room and a defying set of boos by the other, a reaction that is completely understandable once you see the film.

For those who walk into the cinema unaware of what they are about to see or under a misconception about the film are likely to hate every tediously slow, shallow and ultimately boring moment of its 90 minutes. Persons who are aware of inimitable auteur Refn’s approach are likely to wallow in his most divisive work yet, bolder in every way than Drive. Only God Forgives’ formal compositions are both its biggest strength and most glaring weakness- a majority of the film is unnatural, unable to accommodate humane impulsion but by sacrificing narratively Refn is able to build a setting and atmosphere of mesmerising splendour.

Bold, different and tremendously contentious, directors like Refn and films like Only God Forgives, whether loved or loathed, are needed to rock the cinematic boat, make you think and create something truly different, that is one of the few things audiences may agree on with this latest offering.

9/10- Rightfully Uncompromising and Unforgiving
but for many it will be:
2/10- Unforgivably Boring