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only_god_forgives_ver6ONLY GOD FORGIVES
Written and Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristen Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm

Julian: I’d like you to meet my mother

I happened to meet Nicolas Winding Refn when he was doing press for his breakthrough film, DRIVE. That film, which I eventually went on to call the movie of the year, was notoriously violent, which Refn believed had no effect whatsoever unless there was an emotional connection to said violence. His approach was self-described as primal, as a fetishization of what he would like to see. As disturbing a statement as that is, it is only heightened now that I’ve seen his follow-up, ONLY GOD FORGIVES, which is somehow infinitely more violent than its predecessor.

Refn took a decidedly precise approach to the construction of ONLY GOD FORGIVES, a title which seemingly almost absolves him of any part he might play in desensitizing the world to extreme violence. Structurally, this film plays out as one violent act after another, each more intense than the last and each a retaliation from an injured party. Each of these acts is heightened by an acute focus on every formal element that goes into eliciting the most extreme reaction possible. From the meticulous composition to the distinct colour palette to the ominous and haunting Cliff Martinez score, Refn is setting us up every second so that every crescendo is felt to its fullest.

Martinez is not the only DRIVE player Refn carried over to this project. Of course, his apparent muse, Ryan Gosling, makes the journey as well. Gosling plays Julian, an American living in Bangkok, who runs a boxing gym which acts as a front for a rather successful drug business. He runs this show with his brother (Tom Burke), that is until this brother brutally rapes and murders a 16-year old girl that is prostituted out to him by her father. It is this act that sets off a chain reaction of revenge between Julian’s family and the Bangkok police, led by a karaoke-loving, martial arts master named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who always seems to have a sword on his person, but I can never tell where he is hiding it.


Refn does not bother with much dialogue in ONLY GOD FORGIVES, which allows Gosling to save his extreme brooding for his eyes instead of wasting it on his words. As good as Gosling is here though, which is the best he has been since DRIVE in fact, it is Kristen Scott Thomas, who plays his mother, Crystal, who unexpectedly and deliciously steals the entire show. She comes into the city to deal with her son’s death, and by deal, I mean have those involved brutally executed, and from the moment she arrives, she is impossible to ignore. Given that there isn’t much dialogue, whenever there is, it stands out and Thomas’s lines are the best to be had. She exudes so much bravado to mask her clearly questionable roots, but gives away more than she knows about how fully messed up her relationship with her son is. Her transformation is truly remarkable.


If DRIVE was either too quiet or too disturbing for you, ONLY GOD FORGIVES will be far more infuriating for you to get through. This is not to say that if you loved DRIVE, you’ll love this even more. While ONLY GOD FORGIVES can be a staunchly sumptuous and satisfying revenge fantasy at times, it is ultimately far too controlled and calculated to be as engrossing as it suggests it should be. Refn makes one fatal flaw and it is one that goes directly against his own advice. He believes that focusing and fetishizing form will naturally bring the audience into the depths of this disturbing tale, but perfect form alone does not necessarily inform our emotional responses. And without that connection, ONLY GOD FORGIVES may have no effect on some whatsoever.


Your turn!

How many sheep would you give Only God Forgives?


  1. I’ll be seeing this either way because Drive was basically tied for my favorite movie of 2011.

    Bummed to see that it isn’t completely living up to its predecessor though…

    • It’s a strong film and I definitely enjoyed it. It just doesn’t hit the same emotional connections that Drive did. It is a colder film but still a strong one.

  2. If the characters were as interesting or emotionally compelling as the atmosphere in this film it would be a masterpiece. Unlike many critics I did not find it too violent or misogynistic, only tiresome.

    • For me, the violence was appropriate. It suited the style and served the story being told. The lack of character depth helps with the mood but certainly doesn’t leave much to hold on to.

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