DVD Release Date: October 22, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: July 19, 2013
Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence including grisly images, sexual content and language
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Run Time:  90 minutes
Director:  Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Yayaying Rhatha, Tom Burke, Gordon Brown

Director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) said he wanted to make a film about a man "who wanted to fight God." Viewers should be advised that Refn's god is definitely the lower-case 'g' variety, along the lines of an Old Testament pagan deity who demands child sacrifice and plenty of bloodletting, just two of the sins featured in Only God Forgives.

The man is Julian (Ryan Gosling, The Place Beyond the Pines), an American who runs a Thai boxing ring in Bangkok as a front for his family's thriving international drug trade. He's rich, successful, and respected among his criminal brethren but somehow all that worldly success doesn’t translate to happiness. Julian lives a life of quiet desperation, trying to find comfort in the private, explicit performances of his prostitute "girlfriend" but failing miserably.

Playing the part of "god" in this drama is a cop named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, The Hangover Part II). While I’m not familiar with the rule of law in Bangkok, it seems safe to say Chang is a law unto himself. He acts as judge, jury, and executioner, described as a man "with the ability to decide what is good or what is evil." Viewers may disagree with some of his rulings. Chang is very much an "eye for an eye" kind of guy, extracting vengeance with excruciating deliberation. Then, after a hard day of inciting others to commit revenge killings and performing a back alley amputation with his handy sword, Chang... goes out for a little karaoke. Apparently nothing takes the taste of blood out of one's mouth like a heartfelt song performed before a stoic audience of underlings.

The third member of this unholy trinity is Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), a haggard, chain smoking harpy so bitter and angry she can’t even fake normal behavior. Refn, who wrote and produced the film in addition to directing, calls her character "a combination of Lady Macbeth and Donatella Versace" who embodies "absolute evil." Crystal lashes out at anyone who stands in her way and several just unfortunate enough to be caught in the crossfire. She insists on discussing the relative sizes of her sons' male members in what has to be the most awkward "meet the parents" dinner conversation ever. But then, her relationship with Julian can best be described, in polite company at least, as unnatural. When told about her elder son’s actions—a truly horrific crime that should by rights disgust even the most hardened soul—Crystal’s laconic reply is "I'm sure he had his reasons." Apparently that's the sort of thing one can expect from Refn, who says "the second enemy of creativity, after having 'good taste' is being safe."

No worries about too much good taste here: the subject matter is almost unremittingly vile. A man demands an underage girl from a pimp, shouting "I want to f*** a fourteen-year-old." Children are indeed sacrificed. Blood, guts, and gore splatter all over the screen. What appears to be 'fifties night' at a local brothel is interrupted by a graphic torture session where a man screams for mercy while beautifully-dressed prostitutes sit obediently still with their eyes closed. And so on.

And yet... the pity of it all is that the film is so beautifully crafted. The lighting is stellar: a dark, shadowy vibe that lends an extra air of danger to every scene. There's not much dialogue and roughly half of what is there is not in English (there are subtitles), but the silence and stillness is deliberate and adds to the foreboding. With so little speech, the music (by Cliff Martinez) is more important than ever and this score is - dare I say it? - potentially Oscar-worthy. One big fight scene is scored with what sounds like a cross between techno-pop and Phantom of the Opera, a perfect backdrop for the beautifully filmed action. The acting is first rate and the directing is excellent. All that talent... wasted on such an unpleasant story.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Julian and Crystal’s family business is the international drug trade; we see drugs being delivered but not used. Some drinking and almost constant smoking.
  • Language/Profanity: The f-bomb,  b-word, sexual reference (cu**, coc*), n-word
  • Sex/Nudity: A woman ties a man to a chair (with his consent), hikes up her dress and slides her finger up her skirt. We see her face as she pleasures herself while he watches. A man slides his hand up a woman’s very short skirt. A woman embraces her son and fondles his backside; a sexual history between them is alluded to. Prostitutes are shown for sale in a window and later in what appears to be a brothel. Young girls are for sale on the street. A man demands to have sex with a “fourteen-year-old”; it is later implied he rapes an underage girl. Male bodybuilders with oiled skin and small suits are shown. A woman is forced to take off her dress on the street (she’s wearing underwear). Woman shown in a club in a kind of cage; a man fantasizes about touching her.
  • Violent/Frightening/Intense: Considerable graphic violence, often very stylized. Boxing, a man beaten over the head. Bloody scene of dead girl and later dead man with half his head gone. Man’s arm amputated with sword. Man stabbed and throat slit. Blood pours from faucet (apparently an illusion). Man shot in head; multiple people shot and killed at restaurant. Pan of hot grease thrown in man’s face. Multiple stabbings, often graphic. Woman stabbed in neck, her midsection is cut open after death; a man puts his hand into the open wound. Disturbing and lengthy torture scene involving bamboo sticks impaling and gouging out eyes. Vicious fighting. Multiple shootings, including one in view of a child; it’s not clear if the child is later killed. It is implied that a man killed his father at his mother’s request.
  • Spiritual Themes: There is neither grace nor forgiveness here, only revenge. The story takes place in a dark and horrible world devoid of goodness. In this story of a fight between man and "god" it’s not altogether clear who wins.

Publication date: July 19, 2013