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Underrated: Only God Forgives

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When? 2013  |  What’s it rated? R  |  Where’s it available? DVD, Streaming on Amazon.

Writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn re-teams with Ryan Gosling (Drive) in this bloody neo-noir revenge tale, bathed in neon and gorgeously filmed in Bangkok. Gosling stars as Julian, a drug smuggler who killed a man a decade earlier. Julian now runs a Thailand boxing club as a front for his operation, which he runs with his sexually depraved and self-destructive brother Billy (Tom Burke).

Julian’s world is upended after Billy rapes and murders an underage prostitute. Cold-as-ice, sword-wielding ex-policeman Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), known locally as the Angel of Vengeance, allows the young girl’s father to kill Billy in revenge. Soon Julian’s sociopath mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas), arrives from London and coerces Julian into avenging his brother, which leads to a showdown between him and Chang.

BROKEN LIVES :  Ryan Gosling stars as Julian, a drug-runner who’s drawn into a revenge plot. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SPACE ROCKET NATION
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF SPACE ROCKET NATION
  • BROKEN LIVES : Ryan Gosling stars as Julian, a drug-runner who’s drawn into a revenge plot.

Only God Forgives isn’t as good as Refn and Gosling’s earlier collaboration, Drive, but it contains many of the same qualities of stylized cinema and a pulsing soundtrack. It’s just much darker and more difficult to like, largely because none of its characters are redeemable. Julian is emotionally broken, and Gosling plays him as nearly mute. He speaks perhaps 10 lines the entire film. We learn his mother abused him and Billy both emotionally and sexually. Crystal is the kind of cold witch who compares her sons’ penis sizes in conversation. All these people are the worst form of humanity.

Then there’s Chang, a stone-faced ex-cop who clearly doesn’t care about due process and whose idea of justice is brutal and swift. We discover he’s got a love for karaoke and dotes on his young daughter, but on the streets he’s more feared than respected, and he’s as emotionally cold as they come—just as much a violent killer as Billy.

Refn is unquestionably a careful filmmaker, and he makes choices for a reason. There’s enough subtly here to bear repeat viewings—if one is willing to witness the horrors again. The cinematography reminds me of some Michael Mann films such as Manhunter and Collateral—filled with beautiful colors and use of light. But this is a film that appears designed to upset people, and Refn seems to want to emulate the career of someone like Lars von Trier, whose films (Antichrist, Melancholia) also upset viewers. When Only God Forgives was screened at Cannes, it was booed by some audience members and given a standing ovation by others.

If you have a high tolerance for violence and you want to witness truly broken people and the depraved world they create for themselves, this is worth seeing. I did feel some sympathy for Julian because despite his abusive past, he still makes moral distinctions, but he loathes himself, and trying to comprehend someone like that is a depressing exercise. Watch at your own peril. (90 min.)

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