This is the kind of movie you sink into and let it envelop you completely. Every scene is meticulously composed. It’s paced slowly and takes its time to get where it’s going. It’s largely a visual movie without the need for much dialogue or story. The sets, from the lights down to the wallpaper are mesmerizing. The cinematography is excellent and for those who appreciate such things, “Only God Forgives” has a lot to take in.
It takes place in a dreamy Bangkok underworld that’s partly real and partly the fantasy of Julian (Ryan Gosling), a high-class drug dealer. Although fantasy and reality blend seamlessly, we can always tell which is which because of subtle cues. This is especially thanks to Mathew Newman’s sharp editing.
Director Nicholas Winding Refn likes to play with the conventions of action movies. In his last movie, “Drive”, he exaggerated the role of the action hero. There, Ryan Gosling played the cool, autonomous action hero. But he was so cool and autonomous that he seemed almost not human. It was a clever play on the only way those characters could possibly exist in the real world.
The Bangkok of “Only God Forgives” seems to suggest the glamorous world of classy criminals. The kind some movies might glamorize. But it’s populated by characters that sit around these dark dreamscape sets with numb, half dead looks on their faces. Julian slouches around a club where he watches his favourite prostitute, Mia (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) dance. When they have sex he’s barely lucid. He can’t even bother to make a smile. The villain, a corrupt cop and former Thai boxing champ, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) celebrates his vigilante victories by singing karaoke to his officers. But like Julian, Chang and his men are only going through the motions of their lives. There is the sense their violent lifestyle is taxing them into a numbness of the external world.
Its been said that the hot women of action movies serve no real purpose except to prove the heterosexuality of the male protagonist. In this movie, that idea is pushed further. The women of “Only God Forgives” are pure body. They exist mostly in the background and resemble living statues.
Gosling plays a dud. His criminal status and lifestyle is thanks to his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) who runs the show from the U.S. When Chang kills his brother, Julian is expected to step up and quest for vengeance, and thus, become an action hero. But it’s his mother who flies to Bangkok to take care of it personally. Julian is only an action hero in his fantasies, where Mia is his beautiful girlfriend and he’s a tough guy who can walk up to two guys and beat them up.
After his mother’s attempt to hire muscle to take Chang out backfires, Julian comes up with a plan destined to fail. He challenges Chang to a fight. What that will accomplish, other than roughing Chang up is unclear. The fight is staged in a false climax where Julian is badly beaten, not landing a single hit.
There’s a book of comparative mythology by Joseph Campbell called “Hero With a Thousand Faces” where Campbell details a pattern familiar to many stories, and one that is commonly seen in the action movie. The “Hero’s Journey” is broken down into three major phases: initial success, defeat, where the hero is humiliated and temporarily defeated, and finally a redemptive return where he defeats the enemy who previously defeated him. Considering Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” “Only God Forgives” is an inverted action movie. The journey belongs to Chang, who successfully bests Julian and his mom, is then temporarily defeated by the pair when they go after his family, but he is never truly defeated.
There’s a scene near the end that mirrors the redemption scene of action movies. It’s by far the most well lit scene in the movie, suggesting that everything is resolved and all right now. But the scene is flipped on its head because the redemption ends up belonging to Chang and not Julian.
Fans of Refn will get out of this movie about what they expect. Fans of Gosling may be confused about Refn’s unique brand of art-house action movies. The audience I saw this movie with was mostly made up of young girls. They probably weren’t there because they were dying to see the new Nicholas Refn movie. A girl and her boyfriend in one of the front rows stormed out the moment the credits rolled.
This is a movie that’s more interesting than it is entertaining. It’s not a movie for a passive audience. I enjoyed engaging with it intellectually. And I enjoyed soaking up its rich imagery.
***1/2 (out of 4)
David Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org