Only God Forgives

Directed By: Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Vithaya Pansringarm

Ryan Gosling has been all about re-teaming with his past directors this year.  He did just that in The Place Beyond the Pines with his Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance.  He's doing it again this weekend by getting back together with his Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn in Only God Forgives.  Despite repeat collaborations with directors who each took Gosling's career in a fresh new direction, there's a world of difference between The Place Beyond the Pines and Only God Forgives.  Primarily, the French-Danish crime thriller is an ultra-violent, pointless mess.

Julian Thompson (Gosling) runs a boxing club in Bangkok.  The club is really a front for his family's drug smuggling operation.  His brother Billy (Tom Burke) also lives in Thailand, and he has a penchant for trouble.  One night, Billy rapes and brutally murders a 16 year-old prostitute.  With the Angel of Vengeance Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) on his case, the girl's father Choi Yan Lee (Kovit Wattanakul) murders Billy in turn.  With the death of Billy, his mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) travels to Thailand.  She wants Chang and Choi to pay for her eldest son's death, and she wants her second son Julian to make them pay for her.  Recognizing the situation at hand, Julian tells his mother no.  Regardless of Julian's refusal to help his mother, a vicious bloody cycle of revenge ensues as Crystal declares war on Chang.

Despite all of Nicolas Winding Refn’s artistic flourishes, Only God Forgives is a truly mindless movie.  From start to finish, Refn fills the film with grotesque violence that has no greater purpose or meaning.  There's no intriguing story supporting it.  There's no grand artistic vision driving it.  The blood and guts on display in Only God Forgives are absolutely senseless.  Watching Julian and the Angel of Vengeance in action is nothing more than torture porn. 

Admittedly, I'm a big fan of Refn's 2011 film Drive, another ultra-violent crime thriller.  What makes Drive work is that the violence is just one part of the film.  There are elements of romance, redemption, betrayal, and revenge.  There's a story that weaves these elements altogether in an artistic way that takes the crime genre in a new direction creatively.  Drive is ultimately everything Only God Forgives is not, a great movie that has a lot of violence but also a point.

Refn wastes his cast altogether.  Ryan Gosling, one of the only true movie stars amongst the younger generation of actors, is a silent, brooding criminal in Only God Forgives.  He barely speaks throughout the movie.  He barely displays any emotion.  He does nothing to develop his character Julian beyond being a drug dealer in Thailand with mommy issues.  Altogether, Gosling gives a thoroughly disappointing performance in this Refn film.  With the underwhelming Gangster Squad earlier this year and now Only God Forgives, I'm beginning to think that Gosling should stay away from crime movies. 

In her role as Billy and Julian's mother Crystal, Kristin Scott Thomas also drops the ball.  As this cold, vindictive mother, I certainly expect her to deliver one of the film's darkest characters.  However, I also expect her to be able to make a connection with us, the audience.  In her hollow performance, she fails to do so, and we therefore have no reason to care about her character or her story.  For his part as police lieutenant Chang, Vithaya Pansringarm also lets us down.  Aside from countless sliced cadavers, the only thing we get from Pansringarm’s Angel of Vengeance is some bad karaoke.  His character is devoid of any humanity and never really becomes a relatable, understandable antagonist.

A guy walking around cutting people up with a really sharp sword for the sake of it does not pass as entertainment for me.  I need a well-written story.  I need well-developed characters.  Most importantly, I need violence with a purpose.  Because of Nicolas Winding Refn's terrible creative decisions, I get none of these in Only God Forgives.  With this in mind, I need some shots.  I need some rum.  Only God Forgives gets a wasted rating.