Only God Forgives: Too Much Violence With Too Little Purpose

Are you in the mood for some graphic violence? In some circles, the default masculine answer is “yes,” but let me reiterate: With all the terror attacks, mass murders and ghastly accidents you read about and increasingly watch on the news on a daily basis, are you in the mood for some graphic violence? If you’re still wavering, I wonder if you would take to the type of story where the only clear-cut moments of character action are acts of extreme, graphic violence — gougings, amputations, blunt force trauma, etc. — that thus perpetuate an endless cycle of vengeance from which there is no chance for escape, aside from death? For you Saw and Hostel enthusiasts still standing, what if I was to say that all this occurs through a most pretentious mode of “art cinema”? Indeed, the only thing more elusive than the point of Only God Forgives is who its intended audience is supposed to be.

After his mesmerizing, if thematically shallow, slow-burn thriller Drive, there’s little surprise the film world wanted to see what director Nicolas Winding Refn brewed up next. With Ryan Gosling once again in tow, I don’t think anyone expected something like this. In Only God Forgives, Refn focuses his significant talents for lighting, setting and mood on an ultra-violent creepshow that lacks a coherent metaphorical grounding or wider purpose. It’s blood and guts with some puerile art cinema interludes — shots of Gosling’s hands; a raised samurai sword; blood pouring from a sink; pitch-blank, Lynchian doorways. There’s a laughably literal nod to Freud’s regression theory that deserves to be taught in film school on how not to employ symbolism. You can scrutinize the moody color schemes and ham-fisted Oedipus references all you want, but I’d say you’re missing the scorched forest for the pretty embers on the trees.

Set in Bangkok, the film only takes a minute or two until Billy (Tom Burke) offers a pimp $15,000 to ‘use’ his teenage daughter. If that doesn’t send your stomach churning, Billy’s subsequent rape and murder of a Thai prostitute should do the trick. From there, retired cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) locks Billy and the father of the dead girl in the bloodstained scene of the crime, arming the grieving parent with a baseball bat. The horrible and inevitable ensues, and Julian (Gosling), Billy’s brother, seeks out vengeance all anew. Upon learning of what his brother did to deserve such a fate, Julian spares the man, only to face to the wrath of his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). When Julian tells her of Billy’s crime, she sneers, “I’m sure he had his reasons.” It’s a flippant turn of that haunting quote, “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons,” from Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. Whereas Renoir opened the frightening possibility of empathy for our enemies, Refn makes that impossible, given the events described above and the only creepier revelations that arrive by the film’s end. At the very least, it’s a line that gets one of those stunned, one-breath laughs (huh!).

From there, the script writes itself: Somebody kills someone, and then someone close to the deceased in turn seeks vengeance. You could say that Only God Forgives is about the power of friendship and family, though that’s like saying The Shining is about the downsides of being a father. As horrible the violence sounds, the characters affected could hardly be called human. The actors mug and stare with about the same vigor as the corpses most of them soon become. Gosling amplifies the man-of-few-words part he played in Drive to deafening levels of apathy and inaction; he only holds the screen for the obvious aesthetic reasons, particularly when fitted in a sweet suit. As his mother Crystal, Scott Thomas hurls some of the nastiest insults you’ll hear from anybody, man or woman, so she sort of rules above the cast by default, particularly when taking into consideration the classy English roles she’s played in the past.

Pansringarm poses the biggest question mark as Chang, the “Angel of Vengeance,” a murderous practitioner who moonlights as a nightclub crooner. In the most drawn-out, agonizing scene out of a collection of many, Chang impales some poor chap with chopsticks and knives before a group of Thai female entertainers lined up on stage. He tells the women to close their eyes while imploring the men to watch. They obey, and he proceeds. You may recall a similar scene in Drive, when Gosling’s character held a hammer to the head of some thug in the back room of a strip club where topless ladies stared at them and didn’t do a thing. There is a relentless drive to deface, humiliate and rob the agency from the female characters in Only God Forgives, even more so than Drive, and I can offer no reasons as to why. Perhaps I am not scraping the broad religious metaphor the title intends to provoke, or maybe I am just overly nauseous. In any case, after the third minute clocked in during Chang’s extended torture scene, I asked myself: Why am I watching a vision of the world so depraved, cold and meaningless, and removed from my own?

Original Author: Zachary Zahos