REVIEW: “Only God Forgives”

ONLY poster

I’m one of the few people who didn’t fall in love with the film “Drive”. Director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling garnered a ton of critical praise for their 2011 crime drama. While I liked the movie, overall I felt it was lightweight with very little underneath its stylized surface. Well let me say “Drive” has nothing on Refn and Gosling’s latest collaboration “Only God Forgives”. This film takes all of “Drive’s” missteps and amplifies them x10. Even worse, it doesn’t have a strong Albert Brooks-like performances to save it from its hollow and lifeless end result.



The film is set in Bangkok where Gosling’s character Julian runs a kickboxing promotion which is a front for a drug dealing operation he runs with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). But Julian’s main job is staring. That’s all he does for 99% of the movie. Much like in “Drive”, Gosling gives another bland, poker-faced performance that never shows a hint of emotion. It’s frustratingly cold and dry – something Refn clearly has a fondness for. For me it grows old and it doesn’t add an ounce of depth to the character. Get used to them because Gosling’s eye-rolling blank stares and emotionless demeanor are ever-present regardless of the situation.


Get used to this stare from Gosling. It never goes away.

Not to be outdone, Vithaya Pansringarm plays the corrupt police Lieutenant Chang who has Billy killed after he rapes and murders a woman. Chang is brutal, has a god-complex, slow walks like a zombie in a trance, and has a weird fascination with singing in nightclubs. Sounds like a well-rounded chap doesn’t he? I know Refn was shooting for some unique stylistic approach to the Chang character but quite honestly I started laughing whenever he would show up. He is in a constant state of slow motion and he has this one single expression throughout the film. He comes across as a stiff cardboard cutout that will occasionally commit acts of graphic violence.


See? Still staring.

And speaking of violence, there is a lot of it in “Only God Forgives”. The movie becomes a story of revenge one-upmanship especially when Julian’s wacko mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) shows up to avenge her first born. Thomas is a fine actress but she gets mauled by this lurid over-the-top character she plays. Her men kill one of Chang’s men then he kills one of hers in some gruesome fashion. Rinse and repeat. Refn splatters blood on walls, sprays blood out of gaping wounds, makes us watch an unsettling torture scene, etc. etc. etc. I’m not one that is automatically put off by scenes of graphic violence but none of these felt as if they served a purpose. I figure Refn had something he was trying to say but it never resonated with me.


Seen this look before? Yep, it’s the stare…

While Refn may not like strong narratives, deeper characters, or good dialogue he certainly loves mood lighting, long hallways, and gaudy wallpaper. We get a ton of that stuff in “Only God Forgives”. It’s the ultimate example of style over substance. I found the whole exercise to be a pretentious and self-aware mess. I will say that Refn does show hints of brilliance when it comes to framing shots. He also can build tension in a scene when he is able to restrain himself. But those attributes can’t save this film from its dullness and overindulgence. Some will see it as a beautiful piece of stylistic cinema. Personally, I see it quite differently.



By the way, still staring…

54 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Only God Forgives”

  1. Seems people are totally divided on this one! I actually kinda liked it, I really enjoyed reading into all the possible meanings of everything. It’s pretty self indulgent and downright bizarre at times but I managed to get something out of it. Having said that, I absolutely cannot argue against those who hated it, I completely understand why some people don’t like it.

    • It definitely has a divided audience. I found no real meaning at all. And as I mentioned, I just laughed during certain parts that definitely weren’t intended to be funny.

  2. I liked this film a lot more than you (it made my top 20), but I am sucker for style. There is substance here, but it’s certainly overwhelmed by all the style on display.

  3. Great review. I quite agree. No characters worth mentioning, a storyline that barely hits any notes and performances that do not shine. Yes it’s visually arresting, but that doesn’t make it interesting.

    • It’s fairly short so if you have some time to waste maybe it’s worth a watch. Personally I don’t plan on seeing it again. There’s absolutely nothing there for me.

  4. I really wanted to catch this one on the big screen last year but never managed it. I did enjoy Drive but have to admit it was the style and soundtrack that I found most appealing, rather than the story itself. Looking forward to catching up with this one soon.

  5. Good review Keith. I gave this movie the benefit of the doubt because it honestly wasn’t all that bad. Yes, it was very odd, strange and at times, random-as-hell, but it definitely wrapped me into its dark, twisted mind that never let me go.

    • Thanks man. I just never could buy into it. I found it flimsy and unintentionally funny on a number of occasions. There are some cool stylistic points that I’ll give Refn. But even some of those failed to keep me involved.

  6. I have zero (no minus 25) interest in seeing this and I’m the minority who thinks Gosling is so overrated, but this is fun Keith! Surely way more fun than seeing this pretentious movie!

    • WHAT?!?!? Did you not see the stare??? Were you not entranced by it??? It gave you numerous examples!!! HE’S THE GOZZZ!

      Ok, enough goofy sarcasm. I’m with you. I don’t see the Gosling thing at all. He’s decent on occasions but he doesn’t fit my definition of a good actor.

      • Oh I’m VERY entranced, entranced to slug his smug face that is, ahah! Never bought into the Gosling obsession, and yes I saw The Notebook. I was far more impressed by James Garner!! Now HE is a great actor.

  7. Awful, just awful. Honestly, what a waste of time (not your review – the film haha). Firstly, Refn should have kept the film completely silent considering how awful the dialogue was. Refn makes his film more about the mood than anything else, but when everything else is embarrassingly falling apart, its hard to let the mood take over. Gosling is unfortunately stuck playing a dull character that I don’t feel he had the right presence for, and when he finally shows some emotion it becomes so over the top, it’s laughable.

    I love me some Kristen Scott Thomas, but she came across very amateurish.

    Nice review, but Only God Forgives stands as one of the worst films of the year for me.

    • I can’t argue with a thing you said. This was pretty dreadful. And like I said, there were times when it was unintentionally funny. Poorly written, poorly acted, and poorly made with the exceptions of a few clever camera tricks. Nothing I would sit through again.

  8. Nice review. I loved Drive, but this was utterly awful and one of the worst movies I saw last year (in fact, I would give it an even lower rating than you). It felt to me like a parody of Drive, with Refn overdoing stylized violence and Gosling staring off like he was a mute statue.

  9. It’s not that Julian was staring to stare; he was in a deep state of depression. Racked with guilt, he walked thru life mentally tormented by his past. This is why at the end he welcomed his punishment from Chang to atone for his sins. Chang represents God; Julian was repenting. There’s a Bible verse “If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

    The film was a metaphor. Everything had a purpose – including the karaoke. In their culture the karaoke is spiritual; notice Chang did karaoke after he dished out vengeance. He was cleansing himself.

    The first time I watched this film I wasn’t sure what the heck I was watching; then I spent some time researching it, and learned that Chang represented God. I watched it again and saw the movie thru a new set of eyes. I really think you should consider learning more about it and possibly revisiting it sometime and you may also see it differently. As a Christian it is full of spiritual metaphors and is the kind of movie I think you could appreciate once learning some of the symbolisms.

    Here is the entry I wrote about it on my blog if you want to check it out:

    • Thanks for taking time to comment. Very interesting take on it. It does raise some questions particularly with Chang representing God. I just can’t see that at all unless the vision is God is a highly negative one. Chang is a brutal, murderous, and torturing man. Those are not traits I associate with God. God is just and therefore judges, but Chang is a pretty ruthless and evil guy. I noted that he had a god complex but its hard to envision him as a picture of the God. Also, God doesn’t need cleansing as would be the case with the karaoke scenes.

      I think I can see the points about Julian a bit better than Chang. I don’t think that helps the film structurally or narratively but I is an interesting take on him. Regardless, all of this is great food for thought. I certainly haven’t heard this interpretation before. Really appreciate you sharing. I’ll check out your write-up soon.

      • Actually, Chang isn’t evil at all. He actually represents Old Testament God. Think about it. He only went after the guilty. Never did he go after an innocent. He sliced the father of the prostitute’s arm off b/c he allowed his daughter to become a prostitute and brought shame to his family; but he didn’t even kill that guy. He had mercy and only took a limb when the guy repented. The people who Chang killed were bad. Crystal was bad. Chang was good. Ryan Gosling was bad by association, probably not b/c he wanted to be, but b/c of his family; deep down, his soul was good, but b/c of his upbringing he did bad things. This is why he was always in such a daze b/c the guilt made him depressed to the point he couldn’t function.

        Also, think about this…think about Billy. Billy was a bad guy; notice he embraced the dark side. Gosling’s character struggled with it. Why do you think he tied his hands in the hotel room with the hooker? If he wanted to do bad, he would have – just as his brother did.

        Notice Billy wasn’t trying to tie his hands up. Notice Billy wasn’t walking around in a daze – b/c Billy was comfortable committing crimes and hurting others; which is why Chang took him out. Chang is not evil. Chang is the good guy. Watch the movie again and see Gosling and his family as the villains and Chang as the hero, and you will start to see the film in an entirely different light.

        The reason it’s a bit confusing is b/c going into the film we’re led to believe our central character Julian is the protagonist, when he is actually the antagonist, and as you learn more about him and his family you see how he became that way – and all that staring, etc. is that little devil on one shoulder and angel on the other doing battle.

        If Chang was evil, he would have simply murdered Julian at the end; but he had mercy. Julian was finally free. Who sets us free? God does. Only “God” forgives. Chang forgave Julian at the end, and only took his hand. Remember this was Old testament God when men had to make physical sacrifices; this was before Jesus came and served mankind as the sacrificial lamb. So, in the case of Julian, his sacrifice, his repentance was his hand, in which was fitting considering all the evil deeds he had once used it for.

        This movie just comes at you from a different POV, which is the antagonists, and makes the protagonist (Chang) look like the villain at first glance, when he was really the hero.

        The scene where Chang cut that guy up at the bar was after the guy disrespected him; that guy was evil and unlike Julian, he didn’t repent for his sins, therefore he was executed.

        Also, remember the scene where Chang saw one of the hitmen had a son in a wheelchair? Chang had mercy on that man’s life and let him live, even though the man attempted to shoot him.

        Another thing, notice Chang never reveled while executing anyone; he wasn’t smiling or having fun. It was business. It was the law. Old Testament style. Chang was not evil.

        You should do a little more research on it and watch it again and this movie will be totally different to you.

      • I just don’t see Chang that way. I get what you’re saying but I still see Chang differently. I mean we are talking about a guy who tortured a man to get the answers he wanted. He even drove a spike-liked object through his ear! That isn’t the God of the OT (who is still the same God of the NT only under a different covenant).

        I never saw a protagonist and antagonist. I thought they were all corrupt and wicked people. Julian does have a thread of decency but he too is a bad guy. Maybe he is meant to be remorseful and repentant. I never got that from Refn’s style. He shows no emotion and there are countless ways you could show that inner conflict besides having him walk around in a haze.

      • You forget what God did to the city of Sodom & Gomorrah. How do you think the events of Noah’s Arc looked? Even Jesus himself was tortured. When Chang cut the man’s eye out it was based on the Bible verse about if a man’s eye causes him to sin, pluck it out, etc. The man whom Chang took his eye was a very evil person, much like those who God destroyed in the OT.

        I never said Julian was a good guy. I said he was brought up to do bad and he is obviously feeling guilty. That’s why he repents and God forgives him at the end. Why do you think God killed Billy, but spared Julian? There was a huge difference between them and their hearts.

        If the film is called “Only GOD Forgives” and yet Chang forgave several people throughout the story, which further indicates Chang represents God. The story is an ideal and a metaphor.

        If you were to watch it again you would see what I’m referring to. The film may not be perfect, but I’m glad to see a director out there who dares to attempt to do something different.

      • Not to get into too deep of a theological discussion, but God judges Sodom and Gommorah. Same with the inhabitants of Earth during the flood. There was no torture. Jesus was indeed tortured but by wicked men. Chang was the torturer here which is what the wicked men did to Christ.

        I very well may give it another look many due to your interpretation. It’s certainly an interesting take.

      • Chang didn’t torture the guy. He asked the man questions and the man cursed him out, which is when Chang took action. The man represented evil. Chang represented righteousness overpowering evil; like i said it’s a metaphor. I think you will definitely see this movie in a different light on a second viewing. Also, reading my entry may help offer some more perspective.

  10. I was one that actually liked this movie, man. It wasn’t Drive by any means and I think it took a severe backlash because that. When I watched it the first time, I wasn’t impressed but on repeated viewings I found more depth to it. It’s unconventional to say the least but if viewed on a symbolic level I actually think it works.

    • That’s fair. Even on the surface this looks like a film that would be divisive. I’ve heard from a few other people that actually liked it as well. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground on it.

  11. I totally agree – Only God Forgives was truly dreadful. Yes, it looked good, with the reds and the yellows and the blues, but for my money, colours aren’t enough. You need a story and characters too. I was utterly bored out of my mind throughout, frustrated by Gosling’s lack of, well, anything, and baffled as to why Scott-Thomas was doing a Madonna impression. Completely underwhelmed and massively disappointed by this. I hated Drive too.

    Great review, by the way.

    • Thanks! There have been some interesting ideas about what Refn was going for. For me it just didn’t work. Sure he can frame a shot, and yes he can create some uncomfortable tension. But I wanted a lot more.

      Thanks for the comments!

  12. I have to say I really loved this film – not as much as I loved Drive but I find Nicholas Winding Refn’s style to be utterly captivating and as bizarre as it probably seems I can never look away from his films, even during the most violent of scenes. While I understand most of the criticisms of this film, I think there is a deeper meaning to it particularly in the relationship between Julian and his mother. For me there is just something so beautifully twisted about the mental state of all of the characters and I found it so interesting.

    I am a huge Ryan Gosling fan too though – if you’re not convinced by him, please watch both Blue Valentine and Half Nelson to see how brilliant he is. They’re excellent films too but Gosling’s performance in both has cemented him as one of my all time favourite actors.

    • Thanks for the comments. You’re not alone. There are several who really connected with this movie. Unfortunately I’m not one of them. I do understand there has to be something that RWR is trying to say and do. I just don’t think he does it well and eventually his style only carried me so far.

      As for Gosling, I thought he was pretty good in Blue Valentine. I wasn’t as impressed as some have been but it was still a good enough performance. It’s the movies that have followed that have dimmed his light for me.

  13. I loved Drive but this film was a bloody disaster! I agree with you about it just not working. I was angry and let down by it completely, and all the characters were truly horrible messes that you could not identify with!

      • Yeah it looked good and everything but that was in no way enough to save that disaster. The characters really grated on me and I HATED the way they spoke, it was so trashy and left me feeling filthy!

      • Agreed. And the style only went so far. Soon I was tired of the high red lights, long slow walks down even longer hallways, and up close camera shots. I quickly wanted it to just end.

  14. Like you I wasn’t a huge fan of Drive, but I really enjoyed Only God Forgives, it looked beautiful and really liked the story. You are right about all the staring, but it has never bothered me.

    • Hey I respect your views on it. You’re certainly not alone. I just didn’t care for it at all. For me the style only went so far and the rest didn’t offer me much.

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