Only God Forgives (2013)

Aka, “The Staring Game“.

Despite him apparently being a Muay Thai fight club operator, Julian (Ryan Gosling) operates mainly as a drug-pusher that finds himself in a bit of a pickle when his big brother acts like an ass, and gets killed for being one. The man that killed his older brother, Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), isn’t the type of person you want to mess with but don’t tell that to Julian, or his recently-visiting mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). Since the death of her oldest son, she’s been a wreck and she wants revenge, at any cost or any way possible. That means Julian, and if not him, than anybody else she can find to do the dirty deed will do.

After Drive stormed the theaters and took mostly everybody by storm (with the exception of a few), many people were not only wondering who the hell this Nicolas Winding Refn guy was, but what he had up his sleeve next. Well, suffice to say, after about 2 years of planning, rumors, and divisive receptions at Cannes, here it is, Refn’s next flick that will most likely piss more people off than ever. And yes: That does mean you, artsy, fartsy Drive fans.

Refn’s style is anything but mainstream; rather than being all about giving us a comprehensive plot filled with intelligible characters, a cohesive plot-structure, and a reasoning for certain scenes placed in a rhythm that makes understandable sense, we get a flick that will probably have more and more people scratching their heads. Not just by the story-structure either, but mainly by how little Refn makes sense of this story. It does seem pretty conventional right from the start, and actually continues to do so, even at it’s craziest moments, but where most will be lost with this flick is that it finds itself in some weird territory. And I’m not just talking about weird territory in the sense that people say and do weird things, because that’s what the plot calls on for them to do in a way that connects to their sense of setting, but more in the sense of how David Lynch has been able to make a career off of so far. Yup, the dreaded “Lynch-word” had to have eventually come out, and that’s more than enough of a reason to scare the utter crap out of people from seeing this movie.

"Watch what you say to Eva."
“Watch what you say to Eva.”

However, my not being a general fan of Lynch’s style and works over the years, I have to say that somebody who can capture a style like his, but add more cohesion to it is all fine and dandy with me, and that is exactly what Refn was able to do. There’s plenty of shots of long, dark hallways, people staring into mid-space, as if they want to say something but decide to shut their traps anyway, Asian men singing karaoke late at night, blood-flavored corn syrup splattered all over, and moments/scenes that feel and look like they are dreams, but because Refn has a style that is so melodic and tense, you are never quite sure. It really hit me though, and it got more involved and interested by the material, despite most of it seeming “overly-pretentious” and “artsy”, which are the key words anytime you’ll find from most critics to describe this movie. Can’t say I blame them for believing so, but I can’t help but also feel like I was compelled by what I saw and felt. You sort of just have to roll with what Refn gives and throws at you, and if you can’t, then you might be a lost cause for this movie. However though, I knew what I was getting myself into and I didn’t back down from a single bit of it, even if I do sense there is some problems along the way that even the most hardcore, Refn fan will have to admit to noticing.

First of all, the movie does suffer from an over-abundance of sure randomness that seems to be done for the sake of being so. I don’t know where the hell Refn was trying to go with this story and what he was trying to convey, but whatever it was, did not come out so well on film. Of course there’s a bunch of talk about “God”, “the devil”, “paying for your sins”, and all of that annoying, religious crap, but it never seems to go anywhere or make much sense. Drive never really had much of a reasoning for most of the shite that it pulled off in it’s story, but it didn’t need to. It was just a downright, straight-up crime flick, that maybe had a couple of poignant moments of human-interaction, but wasn’t about anything life-changing or altering to begin with. This movie is far, far different from that one and it makes you wonder just what Refn was trying to say underneath this material. “Material” that, mind you, will throw you for a couple of curve-balls at times by just how violent and gruesome it really gets.

Though the infamous, “head-stomping scene” in Drive will forever remain Refn’s bloodiest couple of minutes on the big screen, there are plenty of scenes here that battle it out with that one, and come pretty damn close to making us gag or possibly even yack-up the day’s breakfast. Or lunch, all depends on when you watch it really. Though I don’t want to give away too much of what sort of violence happens, and the hows, and the whys, and the wheres, I will say that there are a couple of scenes that will cause you to look away, and others that will actually surprise with what level of violence they actually escalate to. In fact, one scene that everybody’s been hyping-up for the longest time ever since that first trailer popped-up, is probably the most memorable part of the whole movie, but for the sole fact that it surprises you with where it goes. I’m going to leave it at that, but just know that Refn isn’t too keen on giving the audience what they want to see, and if he is keen on it, be sure to expect something twisted on it’s side with that view-point of his. Just a fair warning, that’s all.

Another fair warning that I can’t forget to mention and feel pleased about doing so is that most people will be disappointed with Ryan Gosling here as Julian, the drug-pusher/fight club owner. Many won’t be pissed with Gosling’s performance because it’s bad or anything, it’s actually the farthest thing from, it’s just that all of the wit, the energy, and the charm that he’s featured so much, and so well in the past, is pretty much absent here. That said, the guy’s still great playing that soft-spoken, brooding-type that doesn’t need to say much, or anything at all, just to get his point across. The guy’s got presence and it’s nice to see him shown that in a movie that challenges him as much as this one does, but it’s been like the 3rd or 4th role in-a-row of this type that we’ve seen him do. Time to mix it up just a little bit, Ry. Please don’t kick my ass though.

The one in this cast who actually gets more to work with, and probably more screen-time is a relatively unknown, Thai actor by the name of Vithaya Pansringarm. I have never, not for a single second of my life seen this guy in anything before, but what good I do hope comes from this movie is that that all changes and I see more of him everywhere and anywhere I can. Pansringarm’s physical-presence is what throws most people off here because he’s a small, middle-aged man that seems like he would be helping you get a spare tire on, rather than chopping your ass off in half, but looks can be quite deceiving, as Refn and Pansringarm both prove more times than one here with this character. Like Gosling, the man’s got presence, but uses it in a way that scares you to high heavens, even when he’s just showing up, staring at a person, and asking interrogating them in anyway that he can. And I do mean, “ANYWAY THAT HE CAN.”

Mommies aren't THAT trashy, right?
Mother’s Day must have been an international holiday in that house. Woo-wee!

Together, the two form a pretty worthwhile feud that isn’t all about proving who has the bigger dick, or who’s the better fighter, but more of who has the bigger heart and who cares more. That’s the type of rivalries I like to see in my movies, even if they are between a little, middle-aged Asian man, and a young, hunk-of-heaven known as Ryan Gosling. Never thought I’d see that coming, ever, but damn does Refn love to surprise us.

Last, but sure as hell not least in this cast is Kristin Scott Thomas as Julien’s mother, Crystal, the trashy, gangster-wife who seems like she came straight from a Jersey Shore audition, didn’t get the part, and decided to piss everybody off around her because of it. Scott Thomas has always been a marvelous actress, but she’s never really blown me away with anything as of late, but she totally took me by surprise here, not only by commanding the screen with every ounce of energy that she had, but also proving that she’s the biggest hard-ass of them all. There’s some weird shit going on with this character about her sometimes incestuous relationship with her two sons, but it doesn’t get past the fact that this woman is mean, ugly, and always ready for a good fight, even if it’s through words and not through the fist-a-cuffs. Even though many of have been crapping on this flick for being too stylish for it’s own good, many have been loving and praising Scott Thomas’ performance and with good reason: She keeps the energy of the movie going, even if Refn does lend a helping-hand, every once a few whiles.

Consensus: Only God Forgives is Nicolas Winding Refn at his most stylish and odd-ballish, but if you are able to take it all in as it is, not think too much about it’s material, and realize that it’s not going to be Drive in any way, then it might just work for you and your art-sensibilities.

7.5 / 10 = Rental!!

Round 1: Fight!
Round 1: Fight!


  1. Sounds like you enjoyed this one a little more than I did. Though I didn’t hate it, it doesn’t sit well at all the more it sinks in, at least not for me. But good review, Dan. Did you ever get around to that second viewing? And if so, did it improve at all?

    • I did not. However, I just let it all linger in my mind and then finally got to the review. I think it was the right choice for me in the end.

  2. You and I could not have disagreed more on this, and I was one of Drive’s biggest fans. I wouldn’t say I’m the least bit artsy fartsy, I just thought Drive was a fantastic time.

    Only God Forgives on the other hand? One of the worst movies I have seen. And probably the most disappointing. If Refn hired Gosling and Martinez back and attempted to capture the same style (awkward with explosive violence) and wasn’t attempting to recreate Drive, what exactly was he trying to do?

    Honestly, I found it so bad that I pondered whether or not Refn wanted to sabotage his career on purpose.

    Well written review, but I could probably not disagree with you more. But to each his own! That’s the magic of cinema. Feel free to check out my review at:

  3. First of all Dan, thank you for actually reviewing the film and not treating it like a bunch of deleted scenes from Drive. One of the most common concerns between a lot of the negative reviews, and a sure sign of lazy critiquing, has been doing a straight comparison and not even trying to grasp what Refn is doing here. The comparisons should start and stop with the fact that they both star Gosling, who ended up in the film because the original star dropped out, and they share some other production credits. Even Refn’s own comparison, brought about because someone asked him to compare the two, is in more abstract terms of introducing Western images to unconventional settings.

    My own reaction was even more positive. The better Refn film to use for comparison is Valhalla Rising with its dueling morality systems and hell soaked atmosphere. The centerpiece fist fight in Only God Forgives is drenched in the same bloody foreshadowing as the wind stalled scene in Valhalla. The images in OGF are not as abstract, but beautifully (and brutally) allegorical. It’s dealing with broad depictions of good and evil, but contextualizing them in a neon nightmare where “do no harm” is not synonymous with “do no evil”. That moral relativism is again reflected in both the color palette and the brutality, which is certainly not empty and meaningless, but appropriate to the surroundings and Julian’s moral struggle.

    I’m with you that the languid pace certainly doesn’t always work to its advantage, but since I watched it I find myself returning to the film and finding more to chew on. Thanks again for the good review.

    • No Andrew, thank you. Some very smart points I didn’t even think about when I watched it myself. Need to look more into films like these, I guess.

  4. Great review here — despite the unfavorable other reviews I keep seeing (or hell, maybe BECAUSE of them) , I’m still really excited and anxious to see this. I’m a little nervous about the violence and just wondering if Refn does it to get those rocks off. But who knows. None of us do unless we went and literally interviewed him, so I wish people would quit trying to interpret it so much as the next big Hollywood failure. Only God Forgives? Its more like Only Gosling Forgives. lol

  5. Not a lot of people have been saying good things about this film, until you, Dan, which has made me happy. I was blown away by ‘Drive’ and I really want this follow-up to work too. I am still going in cautious, but excited.

  6. Nice work – I didn’t care much for this the time I watched it and the more I think about it the more I hate it.

    “Wanna fight?” PFFT

  7. I agree with you in as far as Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya is concerned. Both performances were outstanding and surprising, even if Refn gave them less than stellar material to work with.

    I am one of those “artsy-fancy” fans of Drive, which completely took me by surprise a couple of years ago. Like I said in the review of the film I posted yesterday, I just didn’t find Only God Forgives to be as poignant because the characters are not as developed and the story itself isn’t driven by heart.

    I can’t say I blame anybody for liking this film. Refn sure knows how to make any scene and any man look stylish and threatening. If not, ask Vithaya.

    Nice review!

  8. I didn’t love Drive, but I thought it was pretty good. I’ve heard a lot of people bash this film for being to artsy and being a Lynch rip-off, as you said, but I’m still intrigued. After reading your review I may give it a try. Nice review Dan!

  9. Nice review, Dan. I liked it a bit more than you did (A-), but I’m glad you at least gave it a fair shot. Drive is certainly a better film, but I still found the Greek tragedy type storyline here very appealing, and the technical aspects of the film were incredible. The cinematography was excellent and certain scenes just screamed Kubrick to me. You also brought up Lynch and there similarities there too.

  10. Good review Dan. I wasn’t overly impressed first time around but on a second viewing, Refn’s themes and metaphors really struck me. I really liked it with a second go. I’m hoping that if I see it again that it will improve even more. Very good flick and one that I love that it has created such debate between viewers.

    • It’s a very rewarding flick. Never got to that second-view, but lord knows what would have happened to my mind had I gone through with it.

  11. Nice review. I was a big fan of Drive and have been disappointed by the negative reviews, so I’m glad to hear you gave this a good score.

  12. I’m disappointed with the reception for this so far, have been looking forward to it for a while now. You give the highest rating I’ve seen. I will see it soon, but won’t be expecting Drive – hoped it was originally. Great review.

  13. Good review Dan and I agree with you on about 60% but I will have to fully agree with some of the comments above that it was not Drive but it had a lot of elements that Drive had. I was disappointed with Only God Forgives because it lacked with primarily the story and the slowness drove me insane. I loved the beautiful camera work and the use of colors throughout but there wasn’t much else. I understood the premise and what the director was trying to convey but ultimately it was a little flat for me.

    Check my more in depth review at

  14. Pleased to see another positive review as I’m planning a trip to the cinema this week to see this and although I’m not expecting Drive I don’t want to be disappointed!

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