As you may realise from the title, Only God Forgives is a look at the darker side of human nature. It starts out with a Bangkok drug dealer raping and murdering a pimp’s daughter. When he is killed in retribution his brother, Julian (Ryan Gosling), also a drug dealer, hunts down his brother’s killer. Meanwhile a cop, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) hunts down Julian, and whoever put a price on the pimp’s head.
This makes the film sound far more complex than it is, as what passes for a plot is essentially just an excuse for a series of extreme, ultraviolent torture and murder scenes. It’s like art house Final Destination. There are no twists, no significant pieces of investigation or plot development, just characters murdering their way to their goals in the most brutal way possible.
For some reason the cop character, Chang, who appears to have no superior to question his arbitrarily killing suspects and informants with a machete, also likes doing karaoke. It’s not really done comically and I couldn’t quite work out the purpose of it. Maybe it’s just because Refn wanted to give this ruthless killer the most torturous pastime imaginable. He was worried the audience might be desensitised to violence so threw in some karaoke for good measure.
There’s a school of thought that says less is more; that what the audience can imagine is scarier or more shocking than what you can put on screen. This isn’t a school of thought Refn subscribes to, as he pulls out all the stops to make this the most graphically violent thriller possible. It makes The Raid look like Kung Fu Panda.
It’s disappointing to see this from the director/actor pair who gave us Drive. Yes Drive was extremely violent, but Only God Forgives makes it look like Herbie. Also, in Drive it felt like the violence was a result of the plot, rather than the other way round. The only reason director Nicolas Winding Refn gets away with this is because it’s done in a stylized, art house way.
Stylistically it feels very close to Inland Empire, with its dark red hue and minimal dialogue, with lots of long speechless sections overlaid with hazy music. It also borrows something from The Shining, with its music, combining separate scenes with fast cutting and lingering shots of angular corridors. This certainly makes it atmospheric, but also if it was all done at normal speed it would probably only be about an hour long.
The film’s content may be excusable if it had something interesting to say, but it’s debatable whether this does. It’s certainly a look at the bleaker end of human existence, and is perhaps pointing out that everyone is flawed, that violence breeds violence or that we are all beyond forgiveness, but this is an argument that can be applied to any piece of gore porn. It’s a challenging film, and the challenge is to find a meaning that can’t also be applied to The Human Centipede or Saw 3. By the fifth cold blooded murder, this will leave you feeling dead on the inside.