Movie Review: Only God Forgives

Movie Review: Only God Forgives

Violence takes the place of potential for serious thought

By Mark HadleyWednesday 17 Jul 2013MoviesReading Time: 3 minutes

I had high expectations going in Only God Forgives writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn was the mind behind Drive, a criminal underworld film that actually presents a realistic take on the problem of evil. Ryan Gosling was on board again as the chief character. And Refn also described the film as something of a personal struggle over the character of God. With so much potential for serious thinking, how did we end up with such a violent, meaningless mess?

'Only God Forgives' is full of potential it never quite reaches. 

Only God Forgives begins on a dark night in Thailand in the company of Billy (the depraved brother of a drug dealer) who’s looking for a girl to satisfy his lusts. When he fails to find someone young enough he finishes his evening by murdering the daughter of a restaurant owner. Detective Chang, the investigating officer encourages the father to revenge his family by beating Billy to death – but then brutally maims the grieving parent for his own crime. When Billy’s mother Crystal flies in from America looking for answers, you’re desperate to see if she’ll be the one redeeming character. However she turns out to be as twisted as her son, demanding younger brother Julien (Ryan Gosling) take bloody revenge:

Julien: “It’s a little more complicated than that. He raped and killed a 16-year-old girl.”

Crystal: “Well, I’m sure he had his reasons.”

There’s nothing in Only God Forgives that would lead me to encourage anyone to see this film. Where Refn used art-house style in Drive to produce a taut, thoughtful thriller, in his latest production it becomes an excuse for excessive violence and overburdened tableaus. However the real tragedy is not its gory, self-indulgent climax but the conclusions the film draws about God. 

Refn reportedly got the idea for the film while working through a bout of intense, internal anger. He believed the only person who could really answer for life’s problems was God, and he imagined himself having a physical fight with the Almighty. It might sound strange but the Biblical character Jacob actually wrestled with God as he faced a similarly climactic time in his own life. Refn clearly used his experience as the foundation for the struggle between Julien and Chang – he apparently directed actor Vithaya Pansringarm by whispering into his ear: “You are God.” But the personality Refn attributes to God’s stand-in is truly perverse.

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Change repeatedly tells his fellow officers and victims, “I love life,” even as he goes about brutally punishing the criminals who come his way. This usually involves mercilessly cutting off the hands that carried out the crime. Chang’s brand of justice is delivered without a trace of compassion or regret, and usually finishes with the detective returning to a karaoke bar to sing heartfelt songs. If God is the only one who forgives, then he’s not in the mood to do so. Evil falls by his sword, but he demonstrates just how truly ugly justice appears without a trace of mercy.

The tragedy is that the only revelation Refn seems to have drawn on is the confused voice of this world’s suffering. If he were to take a look at that struggle between Jacob and God he might have seen that though the patriarch had to submit, his security lay in knowing his Lord would not abandon him. Better still if Refn had made it as far as the Gospels, he would have encountered a God so concerned with justice and mercy that He died in our place so that our sin would still be punished even as we were saved. It’s true, only God forgives – but because He’s the only one who cares enough to do so.


Rating: MA15+
Distributor: Icon
Release Date: July 18