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Only God Forgives - Review

Only God Forgives

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 2 out of 5

NICOLAS Winding Refn is no stranger to hard-hitting, ultra-stylised violence. So, it’s no surprise to find that Only God Forgives, his second film with Ryan Gosling, is full of it. What is surprising, however, is just how disappointing the ensuing movie is.

Whereas Drive, their first venture, was one of the smartest thrillers in a while and one of the coolest films of its year, this Bangkok set revenge thriller (of sorts) lacks the same sort of staying power.

It’s not for want of trying, either, as there are some interesting ideas at play in this twisted, neon-drenched fairytale.

But there’s just no getting away from the emotional detachment of the film and its characters, which makes some of the more hard-hitting violence all the more unpalatable. Refn sometimes seems to be delivering violence for the sake of it – and that leaves a nasty aftertaste.

Gosling plays Julian, a well respected American who runs a boxing club as a front for a drugs operation. He has everything he could want for but deep inside feels empty (an emotion that the actor conveys by wearing a largely blank expression throughout).

When Julian’s brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and kills a young Thai girl for the sake of it, the investigating officer, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) – aka the Angel of Vengeance – allows the girl’s father to take his revenge.

But Billy’s death brings his vengeful mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) – who heads a powerful criminal organisation – to Bangkok to collect her son’s body and to dispatch Julian to find his killers and ‘raise hell’. Julian’s subsequent search and decision-making has bloody repercussions for all concerned.

Refn’s film takes an unflinching look at the dark underbelly of Bangkok and wraps it up into a surreal, nightmarish fairytale that sickens. And while there are some intriguing characters – most notably Pansringarm’s Chang and Thomas’s sadistic mother – none of them are really given enough time to evolve.

Gosling, meanwhile, feels particularly short-changed by Refn’s refusal to let him exist… if not observing or obeying or even being beaten up, he’s sitting looking blankly at what unfolds before him (usually a stripper).

It means that Only God Forgives provides little to latch onto and next to nothing to understand. Refn’s stylised direction serves up some elegaic moments of violence but little else. And it sometimes feels downright ugly… never more so than during one particularly prolonged and painful interrogation scene involving pins in arms and eyeballs.

It’s not without its hypnotic qualities. But Only God Forgives eventually leaves you feeling cold, uninterested and underwhelmed.

Certificate: 18
Running time: 90mins
UK Blu-ray & DVD Release: December 2, 2013