Only God Forgives

Ryan Gosling, fresh off of a revelatory turn in the excellent Place Beyond the Pines, unfortunately chooses to squander his talent in Only God Forgives, playing Julian, an American expatriate in Thailand whose boxing club fronts for a narcotics ring. When his immoral brother Billy (Tom Burke) kills a girl and is murdered in turn, Julian’s disgusting mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives from the States and insists that Julian seek revenge – even if this means eliminating a formidable police detective, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

In a pretentious feat of style-over-substance showboating, director Nicolas Refn and his collaborators place so much emphasis on their ostentatious color schemes, self-conscious compositions, and generally gratuitous visual flourishes that they very nearly succeed in ruining what, in less limp-wristed hands, could have been a solidly gritty story of a family vendetta. Worst is that most of the actors in this nearly dialogueless drama appear to have been instructed to behave as robotically as possible, never smiling, as if every movement of every muscle is meant to convey existential angst, every second of every moment an endless Holocaust of the soul which, rather, screens as overly deliberate soullessness. The copious music of Cliff Martinez, a mixture of organic and synthesized sound, is both a blessing and a curse, as some lackluster scenes receive energy from these contributions, while others seem overly noisy where silence would be preferable.

The film does contain some very good scenes and in places achieves an adequate level of suspense. Those looking for action or for any kind of hero will be disappointed, however. An odd performance notwithstanding, the compulsively watchable presence of Ryan Gosling is, ultimately, at least half of what makes this idiosyncratic effort work to the modest extent that it does.

3.5 grudging stars. Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Only God Forgives is:

[WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS]

6. Drug-ambivalent. The film passes no apparent judgment on the brothers’ drug trafficking. Different characters smoke in an indifferent manner, though Julian’s mother’s exhalations at a restaurant table would seem to be intended to parallel her disrespectful words.

5. Slut-ambivalent. While the film shows the physical danger that goes with a prostitute’s lifestyle, the representative whores are graceful and beautiful creatures who conduct themselves with elegant composure.

4. Pro-miscegenation. Julian engages in voyeurism and limited sexual contact with whores, not from any apparent apprehensions of disease, but out of a misplaced reverence for oriental pussy. His mother enjoys ogling Thai musclemen.

3. Pro-police. Chang, a karaoke singer, exemplifies the law enforcer as fetishized performance artist.

2. Anti-white/anti-racist (i.e., pro-yawn). Several scenes juxtapose white characters’ rudeness, vulgarity, and presumption with Asians’ dignity, good manners, or superior fighting ability. Americans and Europeans, from a sense of their own superiority and Asians’ expendability, go to Thailand to exploit its people, causing them to prostitute themselves or hire themselves out as killers. Making no secret of her feelings, Julian’s mother refers to a “yellow nigger”. The film’s perpetrators also give clear expression to their European inferiority complex and belief in the awesomeness of things Asian by giving the title and credits in Thai, with subtitle-style English credits in smaller type beneath, so that no belching American privileged to enjoy Only God Forgives will get the mistaken impression that his entertainment is any more important than some Thai guy’s.

1. Anti-family. Grotesque family relationships abound in Only God Forgives. Julian, his lascivious mother relates, was envious of her sexual relationship with his brother Billy, and lives in exile after having murdered his father at her behest. A Thai man prostitutes his daughters and may be more aggrieved by the loss of revenue than the loss of his child after one of them is killed. The sight of a retarded boy, meanwhile, reminds viewers of the potential perils of unchecked procreation. Chang appears to have a loving relationship with his daughter, but the brief screen time devoted to this is too little to counterbalance the overwhelming abundance of family dysfunction. Julian acquiesces in his mother’s call for revenge only reluctantly, and with good reason, as his acknowledgment of a pointless blood obligation precipitates his downfall.

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