“Gruesomely grotesque and pathologically pretentious, a diabolical horror called Only God Forgives may not be the worst movie ever made, but it is unquestionably in the top five.” Unquestionably! Consider this a cry for help: I must stop hate-reading Rex Reed. But for once, Rex — who, we must always remember, lists Punch-Drunk Love, Being John Malkovich, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind among his other contenders for the “worst movie” title — appears to be on the same page as his critical peers about a new independent film.
Only God Forgives, which reunites star Ryan Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn, was greeted with boos from audiences and jeers from critics when it premiered at Cannes last spring; notices timed to its limited release today (via The Weinstein Company’s second-tier imprint Radius) have been similarly scathing. It’s easy to see why so many have responded with such intensity: Only God Forgives is a mess, an overly stylized and brutally violent mood piece with something to alienate everyone. It’s also absolutely worth seeing.
The setting is Bangkok. Julian (Ryan Gosling) is the proprietor of a small boxing club who finances the operation by smuggling drugs for his older brother, a delightful fellow who rapes and murders an underage prostitute and is quickly killed by the girl’s father. That transaction, and most of the goings-on of the Bangkok criminal underworld, is orchestrated by Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a retired cop whose skill with a sword is only matched by his soulful karaoke. And then the boys’ mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives.
She’s a piece of work. Thomas is barely recognizable, an ice-cold bleach blonde with a California accent and a way of smoking a cigarette like she means it. She’ll make excuses for her first-born; “Billy raped and killed a 16-year-old,” Julian informs her. “I’m sure he had his reasons,” she snaps back. She compares Julian with his older brother unfavorably (and in several, um, unfortunate ways), but her affectionate longing for him is a big bowl of inappropriate. In other words, Thomas steals the show; it’s a brassy, risky, deliciously odd piece of work.
The boldness of her performance also adroitly counterbalances the stone-faced turns of Pansringarm and Gosling; after Drive, Refn seems to be consciously testing how far he can carry the idea of Gosling as a silent film actor. Yet he uses his star’s stoniness with trim effect, and his deadpan cutaways during an utterly bizarre dinner date scene between Crystal, Julian, and his regular prostitute suggest that the filmmaker knows how to tackle the black comedy of this material, even if the audience frequently doesn’t.
The critics who’ve called Only God Forgives self-indulgent aren’t wrong; it seems almost proudly so. Refn gives himself fully to the erotic nightmare aesthetic, in which every room is lit in blown-out neon, any wall could be literally caked in blood, and bursts of sudden, intense violence aren’t just expected, but encouraged. A film like this offers a challenge to the viewer, to deal with something this brutal, this violent, this inexplicable, and this darkly funny all at once.
Most viewers will reject that challenge, and it’s hard to blame them. From early on, Refn expects the audience to slow to his rhythms, and it’s not hard to imagine the vast majority of those who see it resisting, finding themselves (as my preview audience did) both squirming and tittering at its deliriously over-the-top ending. That scene doesn’t work, not really, but it sure as hell gets a response. Refn reportedly shoots his films chronologically, so that he can take advantage of new ideas that might occur to him along the way. Though I was unaware of that information going in, it might very well explain why, in spite of its considerable flaws, I can’t dismiss the picture: because it has an off-balance sense of making it all up as you go along. It doesn’t make for a movie-going experience that is evenly keeled, or altogether satisfying. But in this summer of dumbed-down narrative recycling and monotonous, indistinct mass destruction, there’s something utterly refreshing about a movie where you have absolutely no clue what bonkers place you’re going to arrive at next.
Only God Forgives is out today in limited release and on demand.