A Landmark in Tasteful Tastelessness
At its essence, Only God Forgives is a film about horrible people being bastardly to each other, so it was probably inevitable that critics (and I expect, audiences) would hate it. It’s not that it’s just graphically violent, and the characters say and do awful things to each other, it’s that and the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any higher purpose for it. See, usually when a director makes us watch, say a man plunge his fist into a woman’s bloody womb, that director goes to some pains to explain why we just had to watch a man punch a woman’s womb. Maybe the womb punching was meant to tell us something about that character, it was part of a story that needed to be told, it illuminated some aspect of the human condition, etc., etc. Not so much in Only God Forgives. If you go searching for justifications from writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn, all you’ll really find is “because f*ck you, that’s why.” Only God Forgives feels like it’s practically begging to be hated, like Refn just wanted to thumb you in the eye for 90 minutes. There isn’t much story, but “because f*ck you” is sort of a story in itself. And a lot of the middle fingers are pretty to look at!
Ryan Gosling plays the hero, by virtue of the fact that he at least looks sad when he’s doing awful things, and seems aware of how terrible everyone is. His forlorn puppy face really gets a workout. Baby Goose plays Julian, second son of an awful family that are into drugs and prostitutes and all kind of underworld scumminess in Bangkok, where he also runs a Thai boxing gym, presumably as a front business, where young Thai boys brutalize each other cinematically. Like everything else in Only God Forgives, they do it veeeerrrrry slooooowly, because drama. It seems an Only God Forgives character can scarcely drive an ice pick into someone’s ear without first silently pondering his own ice-pick-wielding fist for 10 to 15 seconds. Those lengthy stares that looked like failed telepathy in Drive are even more prominent in Only God Forgives, only slower now, and more vulgar. The characters all seem to be coming to some silent revelation that they aren’t sharing with us. You could bash it for being unrealistic, but clearly realism wasn’t the point, and it seems Refn is trying to create a new cinematic dialect, this sort of grindhouse kabuki, where the characters simultaneously over-emote and under-verbalize, staring at each other meaningfully between bloody, stylized beatings.
So Gosling’s older brother ends up raping and murdering a 13-year-old girl (one of the few horrible things that happens in the movie that we don’t get to witness in real time), which is how the Gosling family first runs afoul of a sadistic policeman played by Vithaya Pansringam. Pansringam kills the older Gos brother (I won’t spoil how) and the rest of the film is a game of tit-for-tat murder between Pansringam and the Gosling clan. Gos’s mom, played by a barely recognizable Kristin Scott Thomas, shows up to bury his brother, and she doesn’t seem like a very nice lady, judging by the way she calls Pansringam a “yellow n**ger.” Oh come on, that’s not even a thing. She also goes on and on about how Gosling was always jealous of his brother’s enormous cock and calls his hooker girlfriend a “cum dumpster” (a line Gosling came up with himself, believe it or not). Aw, mom, you’re embarrassing me in front of my Thai prostitute!
Afterwards, Baby Goose and his special lady get into a fight that ends with him screaming in her face and making her strip in one of the most memorable performances of the year, a surreal experience I can only compare to getting cursed out by a koala bear. Aw, settle down, fella. Here, have a leaf.
The seemingly meaningless savagery and vulgarity of the plot is oddly paired with a lush palette and a keen sense of visual composition vaguely reminiscent of The Shining. Everything is perfectly framed and set off with sumptuous patterns and warm, ornate wallpapers, making the most of the vivid, tropical locale and soundtracking it all with the perfect, not-too-much, not-too-little atmospheric musical choices that characterized Drive. The aggressive tastelessness of the plot and the hyper-tastefulness of the style choices give the impression of a misanthropic interior decorator who creates magnificent spaces for an ugly world he doesn’t believe deserves them. Do you see how much more beautiful this room is than the despicable turd factories who will eventually stink it up, do you?! It has a very embittered, misunderstood genius vibe to it all.