Only God Forgives [movie review]

"I wanted to make a movie about a man fighting god"

Only God Forgives-20130529-55

Can we ignore the name of my site for a moment? I really want to do a movie review, so you’re just going to have to deal with it.

My first movie, Only God Forgives directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, starring Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas.

You’ve heard of this right? Well of course not. It’s by that same guy that directed Drive…you know…that other Gosling film that was way better than you expected.

[I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum in this first portion, for all three of you who have plans of watching this movie. I’ll go more in-depth later]

Only God Forgives is about a Julian (Gosling), an American who runs a Thai-boxing club as a front for his drug operation. Forced by his seemingly Oedipal mother (Scott-Thomas) to avenge the death of this brother, he must go to war with not only himself, but the Angel of Vengeance  (who is a bad-ass, plain-clothed policeman who wields a saber that he carries in his trousers).

I know that sounds like the synopsis of a great action movie, but expect the unexpected here. If you’re familiar with Refn’s style, Drive specifically, then you know this movie will be anything but ordinary. At first glance, the characters may seem lifeless and dull. There is very little dialogue from Gosling, making his character (yes, the lead) seem pointless. Once again, this is just Refn’s style. Julian, just like The Driver, doesn’t speak much because emotional context is being pushed forward here. Instead of hearing what the character is feeling and thinking, it is expressed through facial expressions (or lack thereof from Gosling). Refn also uses contrasting extremities of color to convey emotions. When Julian is angry, you see red. Before Billy, his brother,  left “to met the Devil” and his death, his body was submerged in shadows with only his eyes exposed. Being that this movie is delivered on a very cold medium, you have to pay attention to every detail. Refn uses surrealism throughout the movie with Julian’s cut-scene hallucinations. Being that this film is set up in a cold medium with several scenes of complete silence, the build up to the action is grand. Cliff Martinez is once again enlisted to do the scoring for this film and it is brilliant. Before the action builds you hear all of the familiar percussion and sounds of a traditional kung-fu film.

Aesthetically, Refn knocked this film out of the park. The locations are beautiful, the lighting brings out the emotion of the scenes, and it sounds amazing in every aspect.

[You may want to stop reading here, we’re heading into spoiler zone]

As far as the film itself, it’s what I like to call a beautiful mess. If you’re expecting some revenge film where the cowboy rides off into the sunset, then you will hate this movie.

First off, the antagonist is really the protagonist. Julian, the supposed protagonist, is on the fence between the two. After fleeing America due to killing his own father, Julian is reluctant to kill again. Julian resists temptation to sin from the beginning of the movie. When his favorite prostitute arrives, he ties himself down and only watches. When Billy is found dead, Julian releases the killer.

But Julian resisting to fight would be boring right? Here comes mother hen. She’s the devil on Julian’s shoulder telling him to push aside his passive ways and seek vengeance.

Where I thought this movie was brilliant, is that it’s really not an action film at all. It’s a huge religious allegory masquerading as an action film. Whenever Julian has an urge, it is quickly followed by a hallucination of the Angel of Vengeance.


Since there’s little dialogue in this film, you have to rely on emotional context. What drew from this film’s message is that God is omnipresent. And if the title doesn’t make sense now, then it never will.

For instance, during Julian’s showdown with the Angel of Vengeance, there’s a frame that shows the statue of the fighter (above). This is the same statue that was shown behind Julian as he balled his fists. Julian lived a life of crime, the statue was his deity relic, and he eventually met his maker. Whenever the Angel of Vengeance kills someone, a scene at his favorite karaoke bar is followed. While he’s singing songs of unrequited love, the crowd is sitting still. To me, this is his rainbow. Yes, he has caused chaos, but due to his ethics and moral code, he feels this is what he must do.

This film still falls short on some parts. Refn really over-saturated this film with “high art” and of course violence. At times, both are useless. This movie only runs at 88 minutes also, so there are times when subliminal messages are flying at you at 100 MPH. It honestly took me three watches to even form an opinion. You’ll either love it or complete hate it, but I tend to fall in the middle. Refn made a beautiful epic that sometimes gets lost in itself, but there’s still a peculiar beauty to it. I think it’s brilliant but I wouldn’t recommend this film for your dinner-and-movie first date.

Final Grade: 3-5

Refn out-Refned himself.



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