The pervasive complaint among critics for Only God Forgives is that these characters aren’t human, that they don’t act in ways a real human would.
I can only imagine this made director Nicolas Winding Refn incredibly happy.
At the core of this film are a family: a mother (Krystal, played by Kristen Scott Thomas), her two sons (Julian, played by Ryan Gosling; and Billy, played by Tom Burke) and a long dead father who we can only assume had a powerful influence on how they got to be the way they are.
When brother Billy is killed in the film’s opening minutes, the stage is set for retaliation. Julian quickly gets his chance, but spares the man responsible — Julian has a lot of issues, but murder is one thing that registers on his moral compass. This disappoints Krystal, who has lost her favorite son and isn’t afraid to take it out on the one she still has.
The darkness in their family is something they take for granted. Krystal’s deadpan commentary on her two sons’ manhood is just about the best hint we’re given into what’s really going on. “Julian’s was never small, but Billy’s was, oh, it was enormous! How can you compete with that?”
The truth is this isn’t a family of normal humans, but a family of sociopaths, and they’ve probably been at it for a while. There’s no need to dwell on it, no need to tell the audience how they feel, because this is just how they are. As a result, Only God Forgives is 90 minutes of crazy people acting crazy, doing things normal people don’t do. It’s left to the audience to piece together the humanity in it, and if you just sit there and take it at face value it may appear to be a film with no substance.
Slow, seemingly pointless scenes of Julian reaching into darkness (and reaching into…other things) come into focus as the film moves along. There is purpose to every agonizing frame. Only God Forgives doesn’t go out of its way to be enjoyable, but to call it nonsensical would be slanderous.
Then we have Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a police lieutenant who acts more like a mob boss. You’d be forgiven for assuming he was the latter. When Julian’s family makes a move, Chang is the one who arrives to retaliate, enacting his own twisted sense of honor. Again, this is a movie about crazy people, and Chang is just a different brand of the same product. His scenes are a highlight, to be sure, displaying Refn’s talent for juxtaposing stark violence with lighter moments.
Only God Forgives is an appropriately named film. Not only are there no apologies to be had in the film itself, but I doubt Refn would apologize for what he has made. It’s a methodical, challenging film that only rewards those who are willing to meet it in the middle. While his last film, Drive, welcomed audiences to his twisted mind, Only God Forgives simply opens a door and says “fuck you” if you don’t step through it.