I don’t think Only God Forgives can be sold with a plot synopsis.
But before I tell you why I feel that way, here’s a rough one, if you needed it:
Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a drug peddler who runs a kickboxing cover racket in Thailand.
After his brother dies, Julian’s kingpin mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) comes to town and demands he enact violent retribution from the murderers. They cross paths with an enigmatic Thai police officer (Vithaya Pansrigarm), a man who fancies himself God and whose judgment is eventual.
That’s all you really need to know to get you started.
Here’s why I loved Only God Forgives.
We all have hidden things. Unspoken calls to sex and violence. Taboo thoughts. Fetishes.
Only God Forgives plays on them. It uses music and images to tell not only a story of specific urges and specific acts of violence within its narrative but to cast a penetrating probe into the mind of the audience. It wants to turn you on — not in a cheesecake pornographic way, but in an exploitative way.
It wants to really turn you on.
During his Q&A session following a screening at Indiana University, writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn stated his mission in all art is to create a feeling of violation in his audience — to leave them, for better or worse, affected by the experience. Only God Forgives is an affecting experience. It isn’t written as a coherent statement on violence, sex, family or love. Rather, it’s a blast of images, sounds and colors, impacting you in the gut and the heart so as to leave you wounded.
The numerous acts of violence are more symbolic than cathartic. The eroticism is smothered in taboo. Traditionally masculine roles are viciously emasculated. Relationships are strange and incongruous.
The narrative lacks drama in the traditional sense. You don’t care for these characters. You won’t fantasize about their lives afterwards. You won’t consider who they were before. It’s not important. What is important is where they find themselves. Do they deserve judgment? Do you, for feeling the way you do?
You might be familiar with Refn from 2011’s critically acclaimed Drive, a solid blockbuster action film with the bonus of Refn’s stylistic knack for good colors, good music and heavy silence. It brought Gosling into a new strata of stardom and Refn much-deserved mainstream appreciation. Fans expecting another Drive, however, had best stay away. Only God Forgives has no hero, no uplifting message. It is the negative of Drive, the B-side of that flowery ode to love and ’80s pop music.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain Only God Forgives, elevator-pitch style, is to say it’s an art project, an attempt to connect with the audience and make them experience something. It might not be perfect or even entirely successful, but it bleeds truth. It is genuine.
And that’s what I loved most about it.
It’s unique. You probably won’t see another like it again. It’s worth experiencing. It’s a Refn film in full form. His entire career has built up to this.