Movie Review: Only God Forgives (2013)
Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” is the type of movie critics like to call “Lynchian” but I get the feeling that if David Lynch ever saw it he’d go, “What the fuck was that about?” It’s the type of movie only God could forgive. Well, God and Todd Gilchrist, who gave it a positive review.
It’s all atmosphere. Ponderous atmosphere. Plus eviscerations.
The plot is simple. A scummy American drug dealer in Bangkok, Billy (Tom Burke), with a predilection for young girls, rapes and kills a 16-year-old and remains behind as evidence. A local cop, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), then makes the father of the girl kill Billy. Then Chang chops off one of the father’s hands for making prostitutes out of his daughters in the first place. When Billy’s mother, the family matriarch Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, looking like Madonna by way of New Jersey), roars into town for revenge, she has the father killed and pays two goons to get Chang. Bad move. Chang is not only a cop but a master of Muay Thai and swordfighting; he’s Thai cousin to Kyuzo, the master swordsman of “Seven Samurai,” and he survives the assault, then goes after the bad guys. He kills the killers, kills Crystal, and chops off the hands of Julian (Ryan Gosling), Crystal’s other son, the ostensible star of the movie, who has almost nothing to do here. He sings a maudlin karaoke song to his fellow cops in a very David-Lynch-like bar and the movie ends.
Right. What the fuck was that about?
I like that there are no real good guys and bad guys here; Chang is the closest we have to a good guy. He’s our real protagonist. I like that Julian, our ostensible protagonist, who is even more incomprehensible than his character in Refn’s “Drive,” offers to fight Chang and loses badly. It basically goes like this:
Cop: You know who he is?
[Julian walks up to Chang.]
[Chang turns around]
Julian: Wanna fight?
[Chang sizes up Julian. After 10-15 seconds, nods.]
Then we get the fight. And Julian doesn’t lay a hand on him. He winds up looking worse than Rocky Balboa after the 15th round.
Much of the movie feels like a dream, a—yes—Lynchian dream, complete with red walls and raised red lanterns, but if it is a dreamscape it’s not much different than the supposed reality of the land. Everyone is stoic. Everyone takes 10 to 15 seconds to respond to a question. Do we get 300 words in this movie? 250? Was Refn going for the record?
It’s as if he took everything I liked about “Drive,” one of my favorite movies of 2011, and threw it away, and took everything I disliked about “Drive” and made this movie out of it. It’s not just style over substance; it’s ponderous style over almost no substance at all.