Is Only God Forgives a misstep or a masterpiece?

“Do you fancy catching at movie tonight?”

“Ok, depends what’s on though.”

“Do you fancy catching at movie tonight?”

“Ok, depends what’s on though.”

“Well, there’s a film about aliens fighting giant robots…?”


“Or there’s a comedy with Sandra Bullock and the one out of Bridesmaids…?”


“Or there’s a new Ryan Gosling movie by the same guy who did Drive…?”

“Oh that sounds good, I liked Drive, let’s watch that.”

The above conversation has undoubtedly played out many times and in many different languages across the world over the past couple of weeks. Let’s face it, even if you hadn’t seen Drive, the image of Ryan Gosling’s face blankly staring into space upon a movie poster is usually enough to convince you to part with roughly £8 and enjoy his company for a couple of hours.

There is, however, a significant difference between a “Ryan Gosling movie” and a “Nicolas Winding Refn movie, with Ryan Gosling.” Now for those of you who watch a lot of films this may seem obvious, however in the case of Only God Forgives it is clear that if you don’t pick up on the tell-tale signs then you could be in for a bit of a surprise.

First of all, let’s examine the poster and the trailer. There have been a number of different posters for Only God Forgives. However the two images most commonly used are that of Ryan Gosling in a classical boxing stance, eyes completely blank and face seemingly void of emotion. The other, more commonly seen online, is that of Ryan Gosling’s bruised and battered face. Now if you had seen Drive and hated the violence exhibited within it, then the movie posters should have been the first red flag.

The second red flag should have gone up whilst watching the trailer. Let’s be clear, the trailer does not disguise what type of film this is. Yes it is going to be visually stunning and stylised to within an inch of its life, and yes it is going to have a soundtrack which will pull you in, hold you there and play with your subconscious whilst you watch. What does, however, stick firmly in your mind after watching the trailer are the images of Gosling’s character dragging a man along a hallway by his teeth.

And the last sign lies simply in the fact that this is a Nicolas Winding Refn film. His films are notoriously dark and atmospheric and graphic and always take you right to the edge of what you think you can bare. If you had seen any of his previous films, from his original Pusher trilogy to the more recent Bronson or Valhalla Rising, then you should have had a fair idea of what to expect.

Now I am not saying that if you hated Only God Forgives then it is your own fault. Actually no wait thatis exactly what I am saying!

Gentlemen, if you took your girlfriend to see this on a whim, let this be a lesson to you. Just because a film might have a dreamy film-star on the poster and, even better, he looks like he is about to punch somebody, do not automatically assume this is the perfect movie for both you and her. Do yourself a favour, read some reviews or read up a little bit about the director. The cinema does not owe you a good time, that responsibility is yours when you pick the film you go to see.

And whilst we are on the subject of reviews, let’s explore the write-ups for Only God Forgives a bit more closely. I honestly don’t think I can remember a film in my lifetime which has polarised opinions so starkly, and that for me is instantly a huge motivator for me to go and see it.

Never mind that I have loved all of Refn’s previous films, even though I may not completely understand them all. Never mind the fact that it is essentially a fight movie in Bangkok, another massive plus in my book. The fact that so many critics have declared it be the worst thing they have seen in ages, followed closely by some critics giving it 5 stars (the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw for example) and calling it their movie of the year, all of which reinforced my decision that even if I did absolutely despise it, it was clearly worth watching!

The anticipation coursing through me as I took my seat was palpable. The adverts and trailers passed by and what ensued was, for me, ninety minutes of pure formal brilliance. A procession of images, more in keeping with a graphic novel rather than a traditional drama, soaked in neon and achingly beautiful made up what is effectively a dreamscape of a movie which deals far more in symbolic representations for larger concepts, particularly religion and morality, than it does any real life characters.

The plot is relatively simple. Ryan Gosling’s Julian and his brother Billy run a Muay-Thai boxing gym which is a front for his family’s drug running business in the heart Thailand’s capitol city. When Billy’s vile inner tendencies for sadism boil over, resulting in the rape and murder of a young girl, we meet one of Refn’s most captivating characters in the shape of retired policeman Chang. He moves like a shark through every frame, delivering a god-like form of justice to all who transgress, including Julian’s brother Billy.

Billy’s death prompts very little reaction from Julian himself; however it does serve to introduce another character who serves a linchpin for the entire piece. Julian and Billy’s mother Crystal arrives in Bangkok in a cloud of seething fury and cigarette smoke. Whoever came up with the idea of having this character portrayed by Kristen Scott Thomas deserves monumental praise as this is truly one of the most stunning pieces of casting. Hell-bent on seeking retribution for the loss of her first-born, Crystal puts both her remaining son and other gangsters into motion in order to deliver the heads of those responsible.

The one thing missing from the narrative, except in the case of Crystal, is the emotion. How Ryan Gosling’s character feels about his brother’s death and the madness which ensues is very hard to determine, and it is therefore left up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions. He sleepwalks through the dreamscape and his apparent composure is clearly masking the broiling emotions which lurk just beneath the surface. He is chained to his mother by blood (in more than one sense) and where another director would spend time having him wrestle with his inner demons, Refn prefers to use a single gruesome act to articulate this primal bond between them.

The soundtrack fits this film like a glove. It has more in common with Sci-Fi movies such as Blade Runner than it does with any normal fight movies, and intersperses mournful love songs crooned in Thai Karaoke style with alien tones and booming indications of the violence which about to rear its head.

It contains shots of claustrophobic corridors bathed in darkness with the glow of amber and red light which delivers the mood settings just as effectively as the score. It is caked in mysticism and features scenes of brutality which are both beautiful and nightmarish at the same time. For those who were expecting a sort of Drive 2 actually would have experienced a film which has far more in common with Valhalla Rising than anything else.

It is no surprise that audiences at Cannes walked out of the screening, and many of those who made it to the end vented their displeasure by booing the screen as the credits rolled. Really? A film about oppression, humiliation and vengeance didn’t go down well with the “here-to-be-seen” hoi polloi of the sun & cash-drenched French film festival? I am amazed!

Although the top billing goes to Ryan Gosling, the real star of this is Vithaya Pansringarm’s Angel of Vengeance. His character is the external and primal force which allows the relationship between Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas to unravel, and it is his performance which really lingers with you days afterwards.

For those of you who require a little more of a challenge from your film experiences, this will certainly fit the bill.

What do you think of Only God Forgives? Have your say in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter.