Only God Forgives (2013) Refn and Gosling's Grudge Match

I have to hand it to Ryan Gosling. The Mickey Mouse Club alum has crafted a career built off finely selected indies with just enough major studio work to still keep his finger in it. Meanwhile, outsider director Nicolas Winding Refn has made his name by being stridently independent and preserving his particular vision on the screen. When the two came together in Drive (2011), it was a match made in cinematic heaven. Gosling’s restrained performance was the perfect balance to Refn’s violent story rife with neon imagery. Refn had originally wanted Only God Forgives to be their first film together, but Gosling convinced him to do Drive first, a good choice as it maintained a high quality cinematic feel while being accessible as well as scoring commercially and critically. Only God Forgives will be a more divisive film (though Drive had plenty of detractors) as evidenced by the fact that it got booed after its premiere at Cannes, but I was interested to see for myself whether the sins of Refn and Gosling could be absolved or if it was time for their partnership to be dissolved.

Julian (Gosling) manages a boxing gym in Bangkok, Thailand, but it is really just a cover for the family business, the importation and distribution of drugs. One evening, Julian’s brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and kills an underage prostitute, but then he waits to be discovered by the police. He is found by Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a policeman known as “The Angel of Death”, who allows the young prostitutes’ father to kill Billy before slicing off the father’s arm for allowing his daughter to be a whore. Julian wants revenge at first, but once he hears the whole story, he begins to believe that Billy got what he deserved. This comes much to the disappointment of Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) who arrives in Thailand with vengeance for her first born on her mind. When Crystal calls out a hit on Chang because Julian won't quell her need for blood, she miscalculates and propels herself and Julian into deeper danger. 

As Only God Forgives ends, one of the first credits that come up is a dedication to legendary director Alejandro Jowdorowsky. For film fans familiar with his works such as El Topo and Holy Mountain, this revelation that Only God Forgives was made with him in mind is not surprising. Refn shows us more than he tells us, and like Drive and the even sparser Valhalla Rising, the script for the film could almost be written on both sides of a loose leaf sheet of paper. Imagery abounds. Gosling’s Julian lounges in bars, his gym, and his room, but they are all drenched in red lighting with red furniture and wallpaper that appears like flames. Julian exists in a type of hell. Trapped by his past and present, he examines his hands knowing what they are capable of, desperately resisting the urge to make a fist until it becomes all too much. When it does, and when his fists fails him, it is then he sees the folly of the cycle of revenge and violence the pervades his entire family. 

Kristen Scott Thomas is all cool rage like Donatella Versace with a vengeance when she arrives on the scene in Only God Forgives ready to throw around oedipal insults and bully Julian into the revenge game. Her character gives valuable insight into the backgrounds of her two boys, and the viewer is left to determine how vile her past actions had been to lead to this moment. She is a difficult character, and her manner is so crass it would be easy to dismiss her dialog (of which I think she might have the bulk of in the film) as intended for shock value. However, I think it more richly illustrates how her two sons became what they have become in a way that couldn't be shown without a strong characterization of the mother. Naturally, the other impressive character in the film is Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm’s presence as the “Angel of Death”. To date, Pansringarm’s highest profile role was as the minister in The Hangover Part II, but I think Only God Forgives should change all that. No matter if his character is exacting God’s vengeance or commanding attention from his troops while singing a warbling karaoke, Pansringarm commanded attention in a way that balanced the film. 

It is not clear cut in Only God Forgives where the bad guys stop and the good guys start. Everyone’s hands are dirty which is perhaps why they all take so much time to examine them. Refn has called the film a “fairy tale” and “an extension of the themes of Drive”, and I can see how both of these statements would be true. In both films crime and violence become the unraveling of mind, body, soul and spirit. Yet Only God Forgives is less clear in its message of transcendence of a violent world. Both films leave interpretation to the viewer, and Refn eschews spoon-fed pretension by making his films feel open to thought, discussion, and interpretation. Visually stunning and full of symbolism, Only God Forgives once again proves Nicolas Winding Refn to be among the premiere directors working today. It is not a film to everyone’s taste, but anyone ready to “meet the devil” will surely be in for a treat. Everyone else, wanna fight? 

Bugg Rating


  1. Great Misfits theme!

  2. Great review, Lightning Bug! I watched the film last week, and am still finding it slippery. There's a lot more questions than answers: How much should we invest in the story being set in a "real" world? (Not much, I think.) Is this a "moral" film (in the sense that is makes a statement about the futility of violence? One of the things that struck me was how deeply sad it was. I would say that it's really about psychological wounds at its core, and battling for your soul.

    I don't know,'s challenging. And all that said, I still relatively sure that I "liked" it." At least, I think I did...


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