Only God Forgives (2013) is a tragic nightmare. It is Nicolas Winding Refn’s foray into the current trend of low-taste and high-style movies that was ushered in with Killer Joe (2012), The Paperboy (2012) and Spring Breakers (2013). Here is a violent, surreal disturbance, the type of movie Buñuel would have made were he born with Refn’s lust for blood. Here is a cavalcade of disturbing images of every nature (violent, sexual, incestuous, necrophiliac) strung together in slow motion. The effect is numbing and disquieting, if also disturbingly hypnotic. If that sounds unappealing to you, I won’t work too hard to dissuade you of that opinion, but I know the movie held my attention. Not in a pseudo-enjoyable “how low can they go?” way as in The Paperboy but as a search for meaning, charm or latent desire to be liked that informs most movies but is completely absent here.
Being fair, Buñuel wouldn’t have made this movie even if he had been imbued with Refn’s penchant for cornstarch; he wouldn’t have wasted his time on this story. Being just as fair, Refn doesn’t waste time on the story either; it exists as a clothesline for Refn’s images. Such as it is, we have Julian (Ryan Gosling), a boxing gym owner in Bangkok who is mixed up in drugs and prostitution. His brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and kills a 13-year-old girl and is hunted down and killed by Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a cop who acts as judge, jury and, with a machete, executioner. Chang also enjoys karaoke and we get a handful of scenes that showcase that talent. After Billy’s death, Julian is visited by his mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who come to Thailand to bury her son and seek revenge. In that process, many will die in excruciating ways and bizarre things will be done to their bodies. Much of this will be in slow motion.
The characters are by-and-large unfeeling, cold or nasty. No one has a worldview that is healthy to emulate, and when they are done killing, they show no remorse or emotion of any kind. They are completely unlikable. Crystal, in particular, is a piece of work: racist, foul-mouthed, inappropriate. Her response to the knowledge that her son Billy is a rapist/pedophile/murderer is, “I’m sure he had his reasons.” She is the leader of one of the most bizarre family dinners ever recorded, a meal between herself, Julian and Julian’s girlfriend, Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), a prostitute. After referring to Mai as a “cum Dumpster,” Crystal steers the conversation toward the relative penis size of her two sons. Even that never happened in Meet the Parents (2000). Were this another movie, this scene would be played for laughs, a celebration of bad manners, but in Refn’s hands it’s presented without humor. It’s not that the movie doesn’t have a sense of humor; it just doesn’t have the capacity for feelings of any kind.
Putting aside for a moment the question of why the filmmakers spent the time and energy to make this movie, why in thunder did I take the time to watch it to completion? That’s a fair question based on the above paragraphs, but what happens in the movie is only part of what the movie is; the other part is made up with how it happens. This is a remarkably good-looking movie, wonderfully art-directed by Russell Barnes and Witoon Suanyai, beautifully photographed by Larry Smith and edited together with the logic of a nightmare by Matthew Newman. Everything on the screen is in bad taste, from the images to the writing, but it’s brought to the screen with such a level of sophistication that it’s awe-inspiring (and a little dispiriting that the talent was used to these ends). I couldn’t shake the feeling that the whole thing is a put-on of Refn’s design to confound our expectations and thumb us in the eye with willfully unlikable characters doing horribly graphic things presented in a way that borders on pretense. That makes it too much for me to recommend, but I must be honest enough to admit I recognized a filmmaker while watching Only God Forgives, even if that filmmaker was making a purposefully distasteful film.
There’s something watchable about Refn’s style, something engrossing in his mise-en-scène, and it’s almost as if he chose this material to test just how watchable that style is. The individual moments that stay in my memory are ones of extreme revulsion, but the overall recollection of the entire effect is a dreamy trancelike reverie, never pleasant but oddly absorbing. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t have anything to focus on besides the director’s own indulgent obsessions, but that’s a sentiment that can apply to many of Buñuel’s best movies. Perhaps Refn just needs better obsessions.