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Review: ‘Only God Forgives’ … but will he understand?

Posted by on July 19, 2013 – 12:01 am

Only God ForgivesFor his latest film, Only God Forgives, the director of the excellent crime-thriller Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn, goes to Bangkok, Thailand, and apparently channels American avant garde filmmaker, David Lynch. While God may forgive this very eclectic and violent piece of work, I’m not certain he’s ever going to fully understand it.

Mister Winding Refn once again teams up with the hunky and brooding Ryan Gosling who plays Julian, an American drug smuggler who, together with his crazy brother, Billy (Tom Burke), and his insane mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), uses a Bangkok boxing gym as a front for their nefarious narcotics operations. (There are English subtitles during the Thai language sections of this film – with the exception of several weird Thai karaoke songs that I would have liked to seen subtitled.)

The story, which is penned by Nicolas Winding Refn, has the older brother, Billy, killing a young Thai prostitute during a spree of violence, and he is then killed by the girl’s father, at the behest of the local police commander, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who is a legendary “Punisher” like character who delves out swift and certain eye-for-eye style justice on those who deserve it.

When nutty Mom, Crystal, comes to Bangkok to collect her elder son’s remains (the pieces anyway) she orders Julian to avenge his brother by killing those involved in his death; but when her younger son fails to comply she finds others that will foolishly try to assassinate Chang. Stylish sword action and severed body parts ensue as the Americans attempt to go up against the implacable police chief, while the comparatively decent guy, Julian, is caught in the middle.

Only God ForgivesSo the premise sounds like a somewhat typical crime drama with some comic-book and western-cowboy style elements thrown in for good measure, but the way in which this story is delivered is anything but commonplace.

Only God Forgives is an extremely stylish and artful take on the genre that is likely to leave many viewers scratching their heads. I liked the film, but honestly can’t say I completely got it – nevertheless, the film will leave you with plenty of interesting after-movie dinner conversation (if you are, in fact, able to eat afterwards.)

In addition to being ultra-violent (although you’ve seen worse if you’ve ever watched a Saw film) there is also a not so subtle hint of incest between Crystal and her two adult boys, some of which is indicated by extremely crude dialogue involving their respective male body parts. As mentioned, this is one strange criminal family.

If you enjoyed the Nicolas Winding Refn movie Drive, you’ll probably appreciate the visual poetry he brings to Only God Forgives, which contains extended scenes of fluid motion that convey the deliberate intent of the characters, mixed with mesmerizing moments of static tension that forces you to absorb their troubled emotions.

Only God ForgivesOnly God Forgives was infamously booed, while it simultaneously received a standing ovation, at the Cannes International Film Festival last May, and that audience’s duplicity is easy to understand. In some respects this film is pretentious and tedious and on the same level as an undisciplined student film, but it still has a lot going for it. For instance, I loved the character of Chang, an unexpected hero (a badass, actually) and ruthless avenger in the guise of a short, unassuming older man who enjoys singing karaoke.

This movie is packed with artsy symbolism, some of which has obvious meaning and some that I’m sure will be hotly debated by film enthusiasts … and some that I’m sure is misleading and has no abstract significance whatsoever. For me, this is a film that makes you think and sparks thoughtful conversation and that alone makes it worth watching, after all, that’s the way God intended movies to be. Grade: 6/10

Only God Forgives is playing exclusively at the Harkins Shea 14 theater starting July 19, 2013.

Photos © 2013 Wild Bunch