Film Review – Only God Forgives (2013): Jordan’s Take

only god forgives crystal

Only God Forgives

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm

Review by Jordan

As Winding Refn’s bluntly violent, neon-lit foray into the Thai underbelly comes to a close, the credits reveal the film is dedicated to the great Chilean expressionistic director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky has proclaimed Refn to be his ‘Spiritual Son,’ and if one compares either Only God Forgives or Valhalla Rising to his ageless El Topo (1970) it is obvious the two share an affinity for placing religious meaning, and old-testament violence into their films.

Eddie’s take of Only God Forgives details the plot our abhorrent characters create through their selfishness, depravity and horrendously misplaced motherly-love, which commences with the murder of a 16 year old prostitute, and ends with a human sacrifice and a very eerie solo vocal performance. It is indeed an interesting story, but I believe the real interest lies with the characters as singular figures, and what motivates them to perform their vicious actions. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a determined police officer with his own brand of justice is indeed the Angel of Death – brandishing his katana he strikes swiftly and without emotion, striking fear into the hearts of the wicked and not erring in his mission to rid the streets of the vile and the depraved. When a man’s daughter is murdered, Chang allows him to kill the monster responsible (the brother of our protagonist Julian), before cutting off his hands for ever allowing his daughter to be in such a vulnerable position. Julian (Gosling) is a conduit, an inanimate object moved through fear of his matriarch mother Crystal (Kristin Scott-Thomas, in an electrifying performance) whose hatred for her second-born son leads her to control him and those around him to carrying out her dark, vengeful desires. Late in the film Chang and Crystal meet in a defining moment; is it good or evil that eventually prevails? And what is lost in the meantime as the conduit goes about his duties?

I’m sure there will be a lot of disappointed cinema-goers who feel this is a step backwards for the Refn/Gosling partnership, but I am proudly in the minority who believe it to be better than their previous collaboration, Drive (2011). Sure, there is no Ron Perlman, but the  brutality here feels more justified, and there is no attempt made for iconic status or  broad appeal as there was with the Driver’s scorpion print jacket and the casting of Carey Mulligan. There are shades of Kubrick and early Gaspar Noe (especially I Stand Alone, 1998) in the way Refn has constructed, scored and lighted this film, and the effect is not lost on an avid lover of those two masterful directors.

It is icy cold, and you won’t walk away feeling completely satisfied, but such is the intention; Refn and Gosling aren’t asking you to like Only God Forgives, but to endure it, and perhaps appreciate the symbolism and visceral excesses on display.

4.5 ‘I’m sure he had his reasons’ out of 5

21 responses to “Film Review – Only God Forgives (2013): Jordan’s Take

  1. I was thinking Noe’s ‘Enter The Void’ as I watched the trailer for this.

    Really looking forward to seeing this, especially given how divided everyone is regarding their love/hate for it. I loved ‘Drive’, so I’m sure I’ll love ‘Only God Forgives’. Refn is a mixture of Noe, David Lynch, Lars Von Trier, and Kubrick. Can’t go wrong with that.

    • I’d be keen to hear your thoughts once you’ve seen it. You’re very right about that mix of directors!
      Thankfully (in my opinion) I wouldn’t go in expecting an experience like Enter the Void – that film was almost too much, even for me. I Stand Alone and Irreversible are significant cultural accomplishments, Void stripped me of all emotions entirely. It was an incredibly stressful movie to get through! Although of course that was most likely the intention… and the way Noe filmed it is nothing short of breathtaking.

      • I was thinking more the look(use of colors, camera work) more than content anyways when I mentioned ‘Void’. Noe is a rough one. ‘Irreversible’ was hard to watch, even with the amazing performances. And ‘Void’ was more a feast for the eyes more than anything else.

        I will let you know what I think of ‘Only God Forgives’ as soon as I can see it!

  2. I continue to read such mixed reviews about this movie. One person will give it high praise while another will say its horrible. Trying to decide if I should just rent it instead of seeing in theaters

    • Definitely see it in Theaters! Not everyone will be lucky enough to witness it on the big screen so don’t miss out. Even if its not a film you warm to, you will certainly still remember the experience.

  3. Drive was my favourite film of 2011, so I’m intrigued by Refn’s latest. I’m expecting something a bit different, and judging by your review that’s what we’re getting!

  4. @realtalkrealdebate – for heaven’s sake, if nothing else, do not deprive yourself of seeing this film in all its visual glory on the big screen. Even the folks who hate it would agree that it sho iz purdy. 😉

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  7. Watched This finally last weekend. While I’m still digesting, I’ll say it’s visually stunning. Visceral and unnerving. I think some time in the character development department would’ve done it some good, as it relies more on abstract scenes to tell these bizarre characters’ lives. As cool as it seemed, it seemed to lack an emotional center, something ‘Drive’ had. But I know this wasn’t about character development. This was about visuals.

    It was still a stunning experience, much like Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’. And Kristin Scott Thomas was unreal.

    • The more I think about Kristin’s performance the more I wish a certain event didn’t happen… she is brilliant.
      You’re right, there was very little discernible emotion, but certainly enough intrigue to keep it on the mind for a long time after viewing. Glad you liked it as well!

      • Yeah, I was surprised at the event in question. One more stark scene to mull over. The final shot with her and Gosling was, odd to say the least.

        The conversation at the restaurant between her, Gosling, and his date was quite jaw-dropping. Really explained a lot about the relationship between her and her sons. Also explained Gosling’s emotionally stunted character. More so than he ever did in the few spoken words he muttered.

        Looking forward to re-visiting this in the near future. Perhaps when I can buy it and spend more time with it.

      • Man that was very weird. Julian obviously had a troubled upbringing to say the least…
        It’s an extremely long shot, but imagine an audio-commentary on the blu-ray. I’d pay good money for that.

      • I’m sure Freud would have a field day with Julian…and Billy.

        I’d love to hear what Refn had to say about some of those scenes, especially that one.

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