Only God Forgives (2013)
***No real spoilers***
I am late to this film, one I wanted to see for some time. Written and directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, a film-maker whose films I have often enjoyed, and starring Ryan Gosling, a wooden actor whose performances I rarely like. It also co-stars Kristen Scott-Thomas, an actress I really do admire, along with a crop of capable Thai actors I did not recognise at all.
Ostensibly, it is a crime thriller, set and filmed in Bangkok, Thailand. Gosling plays Julian, who along with his brother Billy (Tom Burke) runs a drug-dealing operation from the front of a boxing club. But Billy has a dark side, and one night he rapes and kills a teenage prostitute. When the police discover him still in her room, the police chief allows the girl’s father to take revenge, and kill him.
This event prompts the men’s mother, Crystal, (Scott-Thomas) to fly out from America. Not only does she intend to recover the body of Billy, but she wants harsh revenge on all those involved in his killing. She is a hard woman, and boss of the organisation that employs her sons. When Julian refuses to do her bidding, she sets about paying others to do her dirty work, which in turn exacts yet more revenge from the police chief.
In case you hadn’t already noticed, this film is just about revenge. There is no real story other than that. Little or no background, scant character development, and a disappointing array of stereotypes on display. The Thai actors are either paid killers, corrupt cops, or martial arts experts. Their female colleagues supply eye candy, or are shown as prostitutes. The skewed western view of Thailand as a country is on display, for all too see. Then there is the lighting. Red lights, blue lights, green lights, golden lights, neon lights, spotlights, and even fairy lights. With 99.9% of the scenes filmed inside, or at night, the only light not visible was daylight.
To flesh out the story, (if you will forgive the pun) we get mutilation by samurai sword, an unnecessarily protracted torture sequence involving meat skewers, and plenty of blood. Then there are the dream-like visions, with characters seeing into their own future, or pictured staring moodily at walls or lights. We are left in no doubt that the darkness on screen is reflected in their souls. Because it is Thailand, we also get a pointless martial arts fight, and passing shots of neon-lit bars, karaoke clubs and the seedy side of the city. Thankfully, we are spared any gratuitous sex scenes, save for some voyeurism that is supposed to mean something that was lost on me.
Looking for the very few positives, I should mention that the versatile Scott-Thomas plays completely against type here. Her character is a brash American, with long blonde hair, and a foul mouth. She loses herself in that so well, that at times I had to remind myself who she was. The talented Tom Burke is on screen for such a short time, I was sure that he would feature in flashback. But no, we are denied that. And Mr Gosling of course, let’s not forget Ryan. As always, he plays himself well. Lean and mean, long stares, grim silences, and lots of standing still. He is in most scenes, but his appearance in them could be in any film he has ever starred in. Just fill in the name of another of his films, and that’s what you get. Sorry, Ryan. I want to like you, I really do.
I was left wondering about the man who wrote and directed this film. The man who conceived the torture, violence, and sexual deviation in his head. The man who showed us what is surely a window into his own fantasies. Nicholas, I expected better from you, I really did.