As I became depressed during my viewing of “Only God Forgives”, my mind was transported to when I read one of those entertainingly scathing movie reviews included in my late friend/mentor Roger Ebert’s book “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie”. In his review on Roman Polanski’s “Diary of Forbidden Dreams”(1972), he wrote, “There’s probably a level of competence beneath which bad directors cannot fall. No matter how dreary their imaginations, how stupid their material, how inept their actors, how illiterate their scripts, they’ve got to come up with something that can at least be advertised as a motion picture, released and forgotten. But a talented director is another matter. If he’s made several good films, chances are that sooner or later someone will give him the money to make a supremely bad one.”
As I have heard lots of negative buzz around the film since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, I knew I had to prepare myself for whatever I would get from “Only God Forgives”, but this is a truly bad film which, as Ebert said, can only happen in the career of a talented director like Nicholas Winding Refn. It has all the elements ready to be stylish and striking, and this is a visually good-looking film on the surface, but nothing in the film sticks in my mind after I watched it. Its ponderous story bored me infinitely as its flat, emotionless characters trudge along it as if they knew they are condemned to it, and its gaudy but lifeless mood is occasionally broken by a number of very brutal scenes which weirdly feel like mediocre truism rather than dramatic punctuations.
Ryan Gosling, who more successfully collaborated with Refn in the director’s previous film “Drvie”(2011), plays Julian, a young American drug dealer running a muay thai club in Bangkok as his front business. As a match is being held in the ring during the opening scene, he and his associates including his brother Billy(Tom Burke) work on their main business as usual, and we see how their operation is managed smoothly for them outside the ring while others paying attention to what is going inside the ring.
Things could go on like that for everyone, but then something unexpected happens later. For whatever reasons he had in his mind, Billy rapes a young prostitute and then savagely kills her, and Chang(Vithaya Pansringarm), a corrupt but authoritative cop with the moral code of his own, immediately arrives at the murder scene where Billy is held by Chang’s men. When poor girl’s father is brought to the scene, Chang lets him do what should be done for his dead daughter, so Billy is killed by the girl’s father, who is also punished by Chang for pushing her daughter into prostitution.
Julian seems to be rather unaffected by his brother’s death, probably because he has already been troubled and confused enough behind his aloof face which signifies nothing except despairing emptiness. We see him wandering around dark corridors filled with ominous red light, and we also observe his relationship with Mai(Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), a prostitute girl who provides him a kinky form of pleasure when they are together in a private room; he ties himself to the chair, and then he just watches her as she begins her erotic movements right in front of him.
And then his mother Crystal(Kristin Scott Thomas with blond hair) comes to Bangkok, and she wants more than getting Billy’s body back to US. When Julian and Mai have a dinner with her at some fancy restaurant, Crystal blatantly insults her son from the start, and this bitter, manipulative woman surely knows how to push her son’s emotional buttons with apparently incestuous nuances. Although she utters lines as monotonously as her co-actors, Kristin Scott Thomas ably delivers a number of ludicrous lines handed to her, and the moment when her character makes a blatant comment on her boys’ certain body part may elicit some unintentional laugh from some of you for a good reason.
As it was sort of announced through Julian’s hallucination/dream scene, things get worse when Crystal decides she has to do something for her revenge and Chang ruthlessly responds to that, and we accordingly get several nasty moments involved with various types of mayhem to make you cringe. While sometimes using his sharp sword swiftly, Chang knows other ways to punish or torture his targets, and there is a very brutal scene in which a man is ruthlessly pierced with several sticks and then is horribly maimed in a way reminiscent of that infamous shot from Luis Buñuel’s “Un Chien Andalou”(1929). As I watched Chang drawing out his sword in front of his terrified targets, I began to wonder about how he could keep that sharp object on his back all the time, but I guess that is not an important thing to know in the movie.
The director/screenplay writer Nicholas Winding Refn has made a number of gritty but engaging films, and I enjoyed some of them, but “Only God Forgives” is unfortunately devoid of the substance to induce my interest compared to “Drive” or “Bronson”(2008), which were as stylish as this film. Thanks to Refn’s cinematographer Larry Smith, each scene in the film is vivid and colorful as the seedy, lurid sights of the criminal underworld inside Bangkok, but they are more or less than a random series of slick images cobbled together by its abstract story stripped of any human interest, and the characters are as lively as mannequins in department store. They do talk at times, but they do not reveal anything besides what is apparent to us from the beginning, and we are left with nothing much around its predictable ending which does not look as fateful as it wants to be.
Although only four months of this year have passed, I can say that “Only God Forgives” will probably be the most stylish dud in my moviegoing experience of this year. At the end of the film, Refn dedicates his film to none other than Alejandro Jodorowsky, and I sort of understood his reason as considering the common elements shared between Jodorowsky’s great cult film “Santa Sangre”(1989) and Refn’s film. The difference is, while Jodorowsky’ film still can strike me on emotional levels with its many memorable images to be remembered, “Only God Forgives” just stinks with no lasting impression. Now I think I get the meaning of the title now, folks.