From the director and star of Drive, it’s…not Drive.
Well…It is and it isn’t. Like Nicolas Winding Refn’s prior flick with Ryan Gosling, there are massive outbursts of violence amid not a lot of dialogue, stylish locations, characters with no backstories and an atmospheric soundtrack. It’s clearly the same director at work, but this time, rather than trying to bring a pulp fiction vibe to life (and I refer to the books, not the Tarantino film), he has turned out something akin to what might happen if David Lynch tried to film a Johnnie To script. I’m not just invoking Lynch’s name as shorthand for “weird,” either – this is the greatest specific Lynch impersonation I’ve ever seen, with its dreamlike vibe, characters walking slowly down dimly lit corridors as the soundtrack rumbles, odd tableaux of people staring, key characters uncharacteristically singing in a literal spotlight, surreal uses of weapons and staging of crimes, and humor mined from overly dramatic line-delivery uttered amid the silence. The only Lynchian trademark he missed is a scene of somebody sobbing uncontrollably.
So is this a “nerd” movie, then? Maybe not. But they were promoting it like an Asian-style action movie where Ryan Gosling fights a badass Thai swordsman (Vithaya Pansringarm, who feels like an acting veteran but actually hasn’t been in much). I thought you might like to know it’s a whole lot weirder than that.
“Nice white shirt, Ryan.” “Back at’cha, Nicolas Winding.”
Prior to the screening, director Refn, who looks like a nerdy kid, tried to describe the differences between this and his last film. Drive, he said, was “like the best cocaine, and doing it all night.” Only God Forgives, however, is acid – “the old-school college acid; the kind where you become the chair.” I’ve never done either, but having seen both films, I think I understand.
The opening credits are in Thai, because why not. Gosling is named Julian, and his brother is Billy (Tom Burke) – they run a Muay Thai gym. But Billy wants to bang an underage prostitute, and after doing so one night, he beats her death just because he’s a dick. This catches the attention of Lieutenant Chang (Pansringarm) who appears to be in charge of the police but is also capable of meting out justice with a Dha (think short katana with no guard), that, like He-Man, he periodically pulls out from his back magically, even though it’s not visible the rest of the time.
Basically, Chang is like Judge Dredd with a sword. He forces the dead hooker’s dad to beat Billy’s brains in (and we do mean very literally), but then cuts the guy’s arm off as punishment for letting his daughter be a hooker in the first place.
Julian is obviously upset by his brother’s demise, but doesn’t do much about it once he figures out that Billy was pretty clearly in the wrong. That is, until mom (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives and starts yelling at everyone. Yes, Billy killed a girl, but, “I’m sure he had reasons.” When Julian tries to talk sense into her, she fires back, ‘I’ll take care of the yellow n***er who killed my son. It’s too much for you.” (asterisks used to prevent neo-fascist douches from finding this site via search terms)
As the narrative in the movie is minimal about spoonfeeding details – only by looking at the Wikipedia page was I sure what all the characters’ names actually are – you may have missed up to this point that the whole American family are drug dealers. It’s not a huge plot point, but it explains their willingness to kill.
“Punch and Judy had a race. Judy stopped to tie her lace. Who won?”
The cycle of violence escalates – one death begets another – as the title becomes clear: to forgive is divine, and that’s why these low-lives can’t manage it. At the same time, Refn’s refusal to offer much in the way of motivation or backstory (a point in his favor, i’d say) forces you to judge the characters strictly by their actions. It says a lot when Chang survives a drive-by to chase down the assailant and beat him to a pulp with a frying pan; just as it does when he sings soulfully in a nightclub for his fellow officers. You don’t need the dots connected – whatever you come up with to explain the dichotomy will be weird enough. When the seemingly climactic fight with Gosling finally comes, it’s absurdly different than you imagined, as is the buildup: Julian says, “wanna fight?” and Chang slowly nods. That’s it.
As my liking of movies such as Oblivion and After Earth may show, I tend to be a sucker for movies that do a great job with world-building, creating a detailed reality that is different from mine, yet well-thought out and following its own rules. Though not set on an alien planet, Only God Forgives creates a dream-vision of the Thai underworld that is its own thing…and not everything you see in it is real. It also cribs pretty heavily from Lost Highway (my favorite David Lynch movie) and adopts Kubrickian compositions where everything in the shot is perfectly symmetrical just to creep out your senses that are inherently suspicious of perfection.
The movie has been tagged as divisive, but I expect it won’t be for those who know what they’re getting. Fans of Lynch and Gaspar Noe should be pleased, while fans of Gosling kicking ass maybe shouldn’t get their hopes up. Me, I’d be quite happy to revisit this beautiful little nightmare. Just wouldn’t wanna live there.