A lot of people hated this film when it premiered at Cannes earlier this year and I can understand why. It isn’t an easy film to like, as it’s full of artistic shots of hallways, walls, vicious violence and a slow, sometimes non-existent story. From interviews, I get the feeling director Nicolas Winding Refn wants people to either love or hate this movie. Well, if that was his aim, then he has failed in my eyes. I don’t hate this movie – there is too much cinematic intelligence and well-handled material in it for me to hate it. But I can’t say I love it. Far from it. It’s not a very nice experience.
The plot – or what there is of one – involves an American family living in Thailand. Two brothers run a boxing club. One of them rapes and kills an under-age girl, and is then murdered himself by the girl’s dad. So the American mum, fresh off the plane and bitingly bitchy (played wonderfully by Kristen Scott Thomas) orders her other son (the silent, brooding Ryan Gosling) to kill her son’s murderer. She doesn’t much care that her son raped a young girl or killed a girl. She’s just pissed off the girl’s dad took away her first-born.
There’s some half-baked Oedipus Rex stuff between Gosling and Scott Thomas that’s entertaining while it lasts, but sadly director Refn, who achieved popularity with his last film with Gosling, the excellent 2011 picture Drive, is more interested in extreme violence than character development.
The film is reminiscent of his very worst movie, the sickeningly horrid British film Bronson, which took an artistic approach to brutality and had experimental aspirations. The final half of this movie features gruelling scenes that go on for ages but don’t add very much to the plot.
On the good side, the acting from Gosling and Scott Thomas is first-rate, even if they are wasted by their director. The cinematography, set to a well-chosen though often unsettling score, succeeds in creating a an atmospheric sense of place. There are also welcome moments of comedy, the highlight being a terrifically awkward dinner table scene between mother, son and a sex-worker the son has brought as his guest.
However, in the end, my overall feeling towards Only God Forgives was indifference. There’s worse stuff out there. There are loads of better movies one could watch. This film so desperately tries to be controversial and weird it forgets to be interesting.
Only God Forgives (2013), directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, is released in the UK by Lionsgate and Icon, Certificate 18.