Only God Forgives Review: The Most Sensual Punch in the Face You’ll Ever Get!

First things first, this is not Drive, so get you’d better just exorcise that little thought from your mind before you head out to see Only God Forgives. It is, however, a challenging, pretentious, cocky masterpiece; oozing with sex, violence and all the pretty colours of the rainbow… especially red. You know, for blood? Yeah.

ONLY GOD FORGIVESOnly God Forgives marks the second team-up of the divisive Nicolas Winding Refn and the easy-on-the-eye Ryan Gosling, and after Drive stomped on all our faces in 2011, they looked like a match made in Heaven (or Hell, as you’ll soon discover). Despite a large amount of negativity, the two have found success together once again, with Nicolas Winding Refn’s (henceforth to be known as “NWR”, ’cause I’m into the whole brevity thing) penetrating style syncing-up deliciously with Gosling’s good looks. Put a pretty face on ultraviolence and you can at least triple the unsettling feeling you’d get from seeing a whiskey glass smashed in someone’s face. I know that because that happens in the film, and it made me feel at least three times as unsettled as violence normally would.

The plot is basic: Gosling’s Julian operates a Thai-boxing club and deals a few drugs in Bangkok. His brother is slain for killing (and presumably raping) a young girl. Julian’s mother, played by the unnerving Kristin Scott Thomas, flies out to Bangkok to get to the bottom of the whole mess; a mess that snakes all the way to Vithaya Pansringarm’s Chang – a retired cop with a few nifty tricks up his sleeve. Don’t go expecting a by-the-numbers film to match the by-the-numbers plot. This movie dances to its own beat.

Call it confident, call it cocky… call it whatever you like. I call it swagger. Swagger is something that Only God Forgives has by the boat load. It doesn’t care what you think, it isn’t here to entertain you. It is here to tell you to sit down and keep your damn trap shut. It’s here to smack you in the mouth when you get too comfortable, and that’s down to the deliberate, pulsating verve of NWR’s direction. It’s impossible to get a handle on his camera. He shows you whatever he likes, whether in side-on tracking shots that let the focus character wander away whenever he sees fit, or in off-centre close-ups that discern every contour of a face. The direction is wild, vital and it feels essential to capturing the terrifying bowels of Julian’s club, which is a hell of negative space and overpowering reds. Julian’s Lynchian hallucinations of blades emerging from darkness to take his hands are a jolt that pushes Only God Forgives almost into horror territory; Cliff Martinez only serves to reinforce that notion, as his music washes over the picture with a sinister poise. Throw in Larry Smith’s dreamy cinematography, and you’ve got one of the most beguiling and nightmarish films in recent memory.

Only God Forgives

Considering just how technically astute Only God Forgives is, it’s all the more impressive that there is enough going on thematically to satisfy the discerning viewer. Every scene is rife with sexual, religious or familial symbolism (sometimes all three, which is super-creepy), and this feels like one of those movies that will keep you questioning every little nuance. Repeat viewings will no doubt reward with some answers or, even better, more questions. Even though it doesn’t feel like there is a lot going on in terms of plot or pacing, there is no doubting just how provocative the whole piece is, whether you like it or not. Violence will always be a sticking point in terms of relevance to a plot, but here it feels necessary, if a bit excessive. No doubt the eye-slicing scene will be balked at for years to come, but it’s a shock to the system that fits perfectly with the gut-punch of the movie as a whole.

Performance-wise, Ryan Gosling does all that is asked of him in a rather thankless role. He doesn’t say much at all, and shows little intensity, yet his presence seems very important. He seems to give taciturn protagonists much more depth than the paper-thin dialogue allows. It is Kristin Scott Thomas who does the talking for everyone here, with a scintillating show as Crystal: Julian’s disturbing mother. Equal parts erotic, abusive and mental, Crystal is a brilliant creation. NWR gives her some killer lines, including a penis envy bit that’s almost playful in its execution. The majority of the credit must go to Kristin though, as her delivery and demeanour is pitch-perfect, making it refreshing to see an actress ,who so often plays aloof and cold characters, playing a real firecracker. The most pleasant surprise of the bunch is Vithaya Pansringarm, who plays Chang with a quiet aggression that makes him the perfect foil to the noise and brutality of the setting. Throw in some Ki-duk Kim-style quasi-supernatural sword play, and you’ve got a character that feels dangerous and exciting. It’s certainly interesting to see a truly talented triumvirate like this constantly trying to assert their dominance over one another – in fact, it feels like each actor is really pulling out the stops to match NWR’s primary colour-drenched vision of Bangkok.

Ultimately, this isn’t a film for everyone, and believe me, I understand if you hate it. I understand if you want to see me thrown under a bus for suggesting it’s anything other than a steaming pile of crap. But I think that Only God Forgives is the most impressive display of pure filmmaking power we’re likely to see all year; it’s a statement from a young director who truly rates himself amongst the best, and who knows how to deliver his vision. I can’t help but be bowled over by a director who remains uncompromising in his or her endeavours, and NWR has delivered with such dazzling aplomb that it might just be time to start talking about him stepping up to the big leagues.


What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. This is a film that after several viewings, probably similar to PTA’s The Master, would make more and more sense, and maybe even create an appreciation for what is being done.

    • mazzariello


    • David Tatlow

      It certainly does fall into that category for me. I believe that the sense of mystery and a lack of easy answers in films like these are key to my enjoyment. I look at my other favourites (Synecdoche New York, Lost in Translation etc) and I notice that those films benefit from delving beyond the surface. I like to be challenged and, for better or worse, Only God Forgives challenged me. Thanks for reading.

  2. Anton Millener

    Refn is one of the most interesting filmmakers out there and his body of work shows it. He clearly made a film that HE wanted to make. He has earned it in my book. Now that he has it out of his system I’m hoping he gets back to basics and starts making more films like Drive, Bronson, and Pusher.

  3. mazzariello

    I’ve noticed that this is one of the few films to have ever gotten under my skin. Which feels like a good way to describe this film.

    This is one of those films that will not leave you with a sense of fulfillment or a nice ending. Instead it left me with a genuine feeling of uneasiness. Which is an impressive accomplishment.

  4. David Tatlow

    I think you have all hit the nail on the head so far. This isn’t an easy film at all, and repeat viewings will be necessary. I genuinely believe that if you let this film simply wash over you, it’s a great experience. Thanks for reading.

  5. Jon Lisi
    Jon Lisi

    This is an incredibly well-written review but ‘Only God Forgives’ is the worst film of the year and exemplifies what I like to call artistic mumbo jumbo.

    • David Tatlow

      I think a lot of people will definitely agree with you Jon, it’s a love-it-or-hate-it film for sure. Thanks for sharing your opinion, and thanks for the feedback, I really appreciate it.

  6. sherman

    I loved Drive to death and have been waiting for this movie for a VERY long time. I had heard the bad reviews and was getting nervous that perhaps Refn had dropped the ball with this. I finally got to see if with a group of friends the day it opened, and let me tell you… I loved it. It’s a surreal and beautiful film. The violence, in my opinion, had a purpose, but many would disagree. I just don’t see how critics who enjoy art house films would dislike this. Perhaps it’s because of the foreign film feeling it gives?

    • David Tatlow

      I think it’s a film with no easy answers, and that sometimes leaves people wondering if the film means anything at all. Some may call it arthouse for the sake of being arthouse, but that’s purely opinion. I think that if you can find some personal meaning in a film, then that should be enough.
      I really agree with you on the role of violence in the film, it was very necessary. What we will continue to see with Only God Forgives is totally polarised reviews, which is great. I think if a film is totally polarising people in a way that encourages intelligent discussion and thought, then the film has succeeded on some level. Thanks for reading Sherman.

  7. I completely understand the general loathing that seems to be going around for this film, but I loved it, much more even than Drive (I haven’t seen Refn’s earlier work). I found the unusual choices of color palette created an intriguing and effective aesthetic, and never found the narrative to drift into the ‘boring’ or ‘unnecessary’ category. I also found the violence authentic and appropriate for the film. What’s more, I loved the conclusion – it’s very hard to stick the landing for a film, but this one was great.

    • David Tatlow

      I think that when a movie like this comes along, and you really love it, you have to be ready for others who really hate it. As I said in one of the previous comments, a divisive film is at some level a successful film. I’m glad there are so many other people who are vocal about Only God Forgives. Thanks for checking out the review.

  8. Fantastic review, but I have to disagree with your opinion of the movie’s quality. I thought it was a pretentious, undercooked and ponderous movie that excessively panders to Drive and Nicholas Winding Refn fans.

    • David Tatlow

      Thanks! I’ve no problem with you disliking the movie, as I’ve said, it’s going to be divisive. However, I didn’t feel as though Refn was pandering to anyone but himself. He is the kind of filmmaker who will do things purely to please himself. Whereas Drive was a B-movie disguised as arthouse, Only God Forgives is pure arthouse, and seems to revel in alienating people.
      The film will, of course, potentially appeal to Refn fans; you could accuse most directors of pandering to their fans, but I would call that directorial style more than anything else. It’s difficult to separate “pandering” from “style” in that sense. Take Tarantino. He throws Samuel L. Jackson into his films all the time, he has hip dialogue, anachronistic musical choices etc, but I wouldn’t call that pandering – I’d call it Tarantino’s signature move-making style. You could accuse lesser/hack directors of pandering, but not someone who has gone out of his way to carve out a niche for himself as Refn has. Thanks for that comment, I like it when someone can come up with an interesting opinion that can be discussed – it’s why I love writing stuff here.

  9. Aliya Gulamani
    Aliya Gulamani

    Intriguing. Only God Forgives seems to be a kind of Marmite movie, there’s a definite split, you either love it or hate it. I haven’t seen it yet and am keen to do so – I know I shouldn’t be reading reviews beforehand, but the reaction was so intense and divided that I couldn’t resist!
    Am particularly keen to see KST in the role of Crystal which seems worlds apart from the roles she is usually known for and I have an inkling it’ll demonstrate her extraordinary acting ability and range.

  10. David Tatlow

    KST is really great in it, I think that’s the only thing people are agreeing on.

    I often try to avoid reviews, but it’s difficult. I think that with certain films, a review can spur you on to seeing a film that you may not have gone to see before reading the review. A good example of this for me was The Imposter, a very coll documentary I saw a little while ago. Wouldn’t have looked twice at it if I had judged it on plot alone, but after reading some great reviews from reliable sources, I went to see it and was pleasantly surprised. I did manage to avoid reviews for Only God Forgives – I knew from first word that I would end up seeing it, as I enjoy Refn’s films an awful lot…I’m not sure if someone has done this before, but I think there’s an article in the merits and faults of reading reviews before seeing a film. Interesting…

  11. I actually really enjoyed a lot of it. Larry Smith’s cinematography captures the sadistic, evil side of Bangkok quite imaginatively (particularly through the use of the colour red). I also thought it was fun to see Kristin Scott Thomas transform herself into this skanky, white trash mother obsessed with her sons. Giving credit where credit is due is always good i think.

    • David Tatlow

      I wish I’d have talked about the cinematography a little more, but I was trying to keep it light(ish). It is interesting to see that other people I’ve talked to who didn’t like the film, still found certain things impressive. “Credit where credit is due” should be the adopted approach by all moviegoers, it’s certainly better than being totally negative. Even really bad films sometimes have redeeming points. Example: people hate on Judge Dredd, but the interpretation of the setting was fantastic. Thanks for contributing again.

  12. A really detailed review and some great follow up comments.

  13. Luke Stephenson

    Whilst I enjoyed reading this review and think that you make some really relevant points, I am very much skeptical when you suggest that it could be categorized as a horror film. In fact, while I understand how it could be perceived as being, (as you put it) ‘nightmarish’, I think to classify it as such is just a little too simplistic for my liking. I say this because (and I openly admit that) I’m really not one for horror films or anything that’s liable to freak me out a particularity great deal. Whilst there were quite a few ‘jump in the seat’ moments (e.g. the blade hallucinations) at no point did I feel even remotely scared or anxious (especially unusual for me). What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think Winding Refn specifically intended to scare audiences, as you seem to suggest from your experience. As you allude to yourself, I think the pace of the film in particular attests to this, not to mention the traditional yet sombre balladic interludes that soundtrack the film intermittently.
    Shock – maybe but scare, not at all. I think that assertion runs the risk of manufacturing an all too phantasmagoric perception of the film.

    • David Tatlow

      Thanks for the comment. Note that I use the word “almost” to qualify my statement, as I didn’t think this was a horror film. Horror can be psychological, and the use of darkness in Julian’s gym was pretty terrifying for me. It’s the kind of horror that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the tropes of the genre. Jump-scares are just an element of horror, just as serial killers, zombies and ghosts are. You don’t necessarily need all or even any of those things to make a horror. This is a horror movie in the way that Lost Highway acts as horror, or even something like Audition. They are psychologically scary.
      Your definition of “horror” seems to be focussed mainly on more obvious and popular aspects of the genre, rather than the aspects of it that can often creep into films of this type. von Trier’s Antichrist is another good example. No zombies, no ghosts – just a foreboding and oppressive atmosphere coupled with Willem Dafoe’s creepy-as-hell face (and he’s supposed to be the sane one in the movie!).
      As much as I often disagree with Peter Bradshaw, his review also alludes to the scariness of Only God Forgives:

      …and I’m not saying that myself and Peter Bradshaw have the correct handle on things, but I think this film has the potential to frighten in a slow-burn kind of way.

      The last two lines of what you said bug me a little. I think that there isn’t necessarily a case to call any perception of a film (within reason) “phantasmagoric”. There is enough evidence in Only God Forgives to suggest to me that there are elements of horror there, just not necessarily the ones to which you allude. I’m as desensitised as the next guy, but there is horror in a neon-soaked noirscape, brimming with violence and suggested rape/paedophilia.

  14. Kevin Licht

    I feel like I’m the only one in the world who thought this film was “just okay”. I heard it got mercilessly booed at Cannes. I don’t think it deserved that. I mean, you can’t absolutely hate a film with Vithaya Pansringarm’s (definitely had to look that name up) weird karaoke scenes, can you?

    This film definitely doesn’t make it easy for casual audiences either. If this movie would have been marketed the way “Drive” was, there would have been huge backlash.

    • David Tatlow

      Funnily enough, the UK was flooded with ads that were headlined: “From the team that brought you Drive” or something along those lines. Whilst I understand that you want to get arses in seats, it didn’t seem to help that this film was quite strongly associated with Drive. The highlighted section in trailers was Gosling’s confrontational “Wanna fight?” and I thought that it was misleading to have that as the focal point. In fact, Gosling’s Julian fights only once in the film, and one time attacks a couple of guys. It’s not exactly a slug-fest.
      There was a definite Marmite effect for critics, and I think I’ve only seen one review that is in line with your opinion Kevin. With this kind of film, I get the feeling that people who like it will heighten their opinion of it because of the negative backlash, and vice-versa. For me, it had a lot of elements that I truly found intoxicating. Thanks for reading.

  15. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    Late post but: I find this to be a lazy film. The use of Ryan Gosling again automatically links the film to Drive, whether or not we want to admit it. The director knows this. The most offending thing about this film was the dedication to Jodorowsky. I get the impression that Refn wants to make a film about “religion, sex, and morality” like El Topo, but doesn’t quite get how to actively pursue those topics. I prefer Drive because it never strays from its goal and never reaches higher than it actually can. Refn seems to have wanted big things for this film thematically, but everything ends up falling flat.

    That being said, your review is one of the most comprehensive I’ve read about the film. Nice work.

    • The fact that the film doesn’t seem to have become much less remain well-renown going on eight years at this point adds to your hypothesis.

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