Only God Forgives (2013)

August 28th, 2021
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Nicolas Winding Refyn | Cast: Kristen Scott Thomas, Ryan Gosling, Vithaya Pansringarm, Rhatha Phongam, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke | 90mins    Denmark/France


For sheer cinematic brilliance and artistic style, Nicolas Winding Refyn’s Bangkok-set revenge tale really set the night on fire at its Cannes premiere back in 2013, dividing critics and polarising opinion.  Some derided it for its cold brutality and lack of emotion but Heli was equally violent, gratuitously so, and won an award.  

Only God Forgives is all about controlled emotion, seething under the surface of Refyn’s glittering jewel-box of visual tricks: brooding resentment, latent anger, moody scorn and dysfunctional lust also join the party in a thriller seething with a pervasive sense of dread,  heightened by a dynamite score.

The performances are stylised, mannered and supremely elegant: Ryan Gosling, who runs a Thai boxing club, very much serves the film rather than stars in it, wearing a sharp suit and the expression of a frightened rabbit as the submissively loyal son of Kristen Scott Thomas’s vampish mother and drug baroness, Crystal.  She’s a woman at the top of her game, her two sons are trophies she toys with dispassionately.


We first see her arriving in Bangkok to demand retribution for the murder of her ‘first son’ Billy (Tom Burke) on the grounds of his raping and killing a local teenager. “I’m sure he had his reasons” she claims, very much her own woman.  It’s a superbly entertaining performance and one which should have won her Best Actress. Sporting a long blond wig and killer heals, she is every bit as sexy, poised and alluring as any actress half her age, or less.

Against advice, she hires a hit man to take out Chang (Pansringarm), the local police chief responsible for the killing of her son Billy. But the plan backfires and Chang turns the tables on Crystal and her agent (Gordon Brown) who is tortured and killed in possibly one of the most inventive and exquisitely painful deaths in cinema history, all playing against a glimmering back-drop of the lacquered night club interior.  Glamorous hostesses look on motionless and expressionless in compliance with their oriental culture of self control.

Only God Forgives glides gracefully along, each frame an expertly composed, perfectly balanced, a shimming masterpiece. Punctuated by brusque episodes of savage violence, it epitomises a world of clandestine doings and shady characters suggested but not fully fleshed-out, adding an exotic mystique to the piece rather than detracting from it, leaving room for the imagination to wander, to speculate and to dream.  It’s a world where evil meets evil and no one is up to any good.

Nicolas Winding Refyn’s points out “We must not forget that the second enemy of creativity, after having ‘good taste’ is being safe”.  This is not a safe film, it’s a daring, exciting and malevolent. MT



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