Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
There’s something about a film that gets boo-ed that really intrigues me further. Maybe it’s because I have yet to attend a festival where boo-ing a film is a thing, but I’ve never seen anything, however much I disliked it, that made me want to boo it. From what I’ve read and heard, Only God Forgives was both boo-ed and given a standing ovation when it screened at Cannes earlier this year, so I wanted to see myself which end of the spectrum I ended up on.
Ryan Gosling plays, Julian, an American living in Bangkok, running a boxing club, which is actually a front for a massive drug smuggling business. His older brother, Billy, is killed for raping and murdering a sixteen year old girl, bringing their mother (Kristin Scott-Thomas) to the city to make sure he is avenged, however Julian seems a little hesitant.
Fairly quickly, it becomes evident why Only God Forgives is being called a love-it-or-hate-it kind of film. Gosling has recently built up quite a big fan base, a lot of whom would probably hate it. This isn’t for the Crazy, Stupid, Love types; it might even be a little less accessible than Drive was. Firstly, a lot of the dialogues, though there is relatively very little for a feature-length film, is in Thai. I would hope that wouldn’t turn people off though, there’s nothing wrong with reading subtitles. The look of the film is very intentionally over-stylised. It was all shot on location in Bangkok, and I don’t know how much they would have dressed up certain places for the look they wanted, but if they found, for example, Julian’s hotel room as it is in the film, I’d be very surprised. It’s also very static, both in pace and choice of shots. It’s only 90 minutes long, and a fair bit happens, but there isn’t a natural sense of movement to the story.
I think Kristin Scott-Thomas as Julian’s mother is the most brilliant thing about the film. Not only is her look completely unexpected of her – she looks like she stepped out of a ‘Real Housewives Of somewhere’ reality show, it’s that tacky – there’s so much to her character, which we see none of, but you can tell that there’s a story there too. Ryan Gosling spends a lot of time staring at the camera, not actually doing much, but somehow it works. Julian is a very quiet character, with even less lines than The Driver had, and seems not to fit into this life of crime he’s fallen into by no fault of his own. There’s also definitely some incestuous/Oedipal undertones to his relationship with his mother.
One of the main characters I haven’t spoken about yet, is Chang, played by Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm. He’s a cop, who goes round restoring balance in a way, punishing people for their sins, by torturing them or cutting off limbs, and then following that by singing love songs at karaoke. Some of what he does is quite gruesome, and it makes me wonder how his character fits in with the title of the film. If God is the only one with the right to judge people, what’s Chang doing?
I don’t know if I’d say I loved it, but I certainly liked it, and appreciate what Nicolas Winding Refn was trying to do stylistically. It’s difficult to criticise it, because what he wanted to do is so specific, and a lot more than just a gangster film set in Bangkok. I think I would have preferred to know a little more about each character, and how they got to this point, to truly connect with the film, but it is a very good film, in my opinion, and worth watching, if you can handle the violence.
Only God Forgives is out now.