It’s hard not to get excited about something that was practically booed off the screen at Cannes. I know that sounds a bit contrarian, but the awful truth is that I consistently find myself on the opposite end of popular opinion when it comes to matters of cinema. So when the early word was that audiences absolutely hated Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, I knew there was a good chance I was going to be happy with it.
And I was.
Only God Forgives is being sold as a revenge thriller. It is one to a certain extent. But I think it’s pretty clear from the outset that Refn isn’t interested in exploring the oft-traveled road of that subgenre. Yes, people are killed and, yes, that sets off an explosive chain reaction of carnage throughout the neon-littered streets of Thailand. But Refn doesn’t seem to be taking any of it literally. Instead, he crafts an allegorical horror story where the wicked are punished accordingly and nearly everyone has something to atone for.
In terms of Refn’s previous work, Only God Forgives feels most like a spiritual successor to Valhalla Rising. Both films juxtapose brutal violence against religious iconography. Rising was a study in mythmaking that touched heavily on the violent origins and spread of Christianity (unless I interpreted the film incorrectly, which is always a possibility). Forgives, with a similar pace and stoic attitude, chronicles the actions of a wrathful “god” embodied as a man whose brand of integrity certainly falls far outside the parameters of the justice system.
This “god” is Vithaya Pansringarm’s Chang, a revered police lieutenant who dispenses justice with a kind of cold calculation that isn’t lex talionis, but feels born of that philosophy. When he’s not stalking his prey, Chang performs karaoke to a roomful of adoring peers (the same men who follow his example), so illustrating his divine influence on these “apostles.” Early on, Chang allows a grieving father to murder his daughter’s killer. This sparks the ire of a psychotic drug dealer from the United States (Kristen Scott Thomas), who is determined to avenge the death of her pedophilic son. Her surviving child, Julian (Ryan Gosling), is appropriately dysfunctional and haunted, acting on her behalf out of misbegotten loyalty while quietly searching for redemption.
So what’s Refn saying? It’s hard to tell after only one viewing, and the best compliment I can give Only God Forgives is that I’m eagerly anticipating another look. The very literal idea of a harried police lieutenant delivering salvation through destruction makes for an incredibly badass premise. There’s plenty of religious allegory as Pansringarm and Thomas can be viewed as metaphorical forces of light and dark. Or maybe there is no religion here, and Refn is suggesting that in the end there is only forgiveness or destruction.
It’s obvious this isn’t a movie for everyone and Refn doesn’t appear to have any interest in furthering his mainstream appeal in the wake of Drive. The director could’ve easily transported the Driver to another environment and made the same exact film to even greater applause. Instead, however, he doubled down on the style of his earlier works, delivering something far more obtuse and alienating. No, it may not be for everyone. But I kind of loved it.