The first thing you should know before seeing Only God Forgives — director Nicolas Winding Refn's grim, bloody follow-up to 2011's Drive — is the reception it received at its world premiere at Cannes in May. During the screening, the film was met with laughter, boos, and jeers; at the end, it received a standing ovation.
That polarized reception is a microcosm of the overall critical reaction to Only God Forgives, which hits theaters in limited release today. The film, which stars Ryan Gosling as a near-silent avenger in a crime-ridden Bangkok, is stupid, needlessly gory, and generally unpleasant; if it wasn't so gorgeously framed and shot, it might be unwatchable altogether.
At a post-screening Q&A with Refn and the film's cast earlier this week, he acknowledged the film's nasty bite, while intimating that was exactly the effect he had in mind. "If Drive is like good cocaine, Only God Forgives is like being on acid," he said.
I wouldn't judge anyone who would rather not spend their time and money on the cinematic equivalent of a bad acid trip. But here's the thing: For all its myriad flaws — which will be recounted in detail below — I didn't hate Only God Forgives like so many other critics have. And while I can't exactly say I liked it, and have no intention of ever seeing it again, I'm certainly glad I saw it once.
But should you see it? Here, read some (spoiler-ish) problems with Only God Forgives, and decide whether or not it's a movie you'd like to experience for yourself:
1. Ryan Gosling's character is an uncharismatic creep:
It was obvious that a certain percentage of the audience at my screening had showed up just to swoon over Ryan Gosling at the post-screening Q&A. And while The Gos certainly lived up to expectations — seriously, the man glows like a demigod in person — there was nothing attractive about him in Only God Forgives. Gosling's Julian is a blank-faced psycho whose only burst of emotion comes when he forces a prostitute to strip in public. He speaks 17 lines in the entire movie. It's hard to say whether Gosling's performance in Only God Forgives is any good, because it's not really a performance — the character is just a mumbly, deliberately inscrutable cipher for the audience to follow into hell. Gosling himself seemed reluctant to define Julian as a character at all. "In Drive, I was the Driver," he explained. "In this, I was the car."
2. It's violent — like, really, really violent:
If you've seen Drive — or, for that matter, any of Refn's other films — you won't be surprised to hear that Only God Forgives is violent. But Refn has used the freedom he earned with Drive's success to push his capacity for cinematic violence to new and sickening extremes. The inciting incident is the rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl. Limbs are lobbed off with as much ceremony as you would use to chop carrots. An unsuspecting man has hot cooking oil thrown in his face. The film's gory centerpiece is a seemingly endless scene in which Julian's adversary, a police detective named Chang, stoically tortures a man with long hair needles and fruit carving knives. It's easily as graphic and unpleasant as so-called "torture porn" films like the Saw and Hostel movies, and even the strongest of stomachs will likely be turned.
3. Its depiction of Bangkok is lazy at best, and racist at worst:
Only God Forgives is set in Bangkok, which is depicted as a debauched, lawless hellhole that doubles as a playground for psychotic white people. (It would be a fascinating double-bill with The Hangover Part II, which featured a similar nightmare vision of Bangkok.) In Refn's vision, Bangkok is composed almost entirely of dimly lit bars and whorehouses.
But if Only God Forgives' depiction of Bangkok is bad, its depiction of Bangkok's population is worse. Chang carries a sword around at all times, dispensing a brand of justice that's not far from the "honorable" protagonists that have turned up as wheezy stereotypes in kung-fu movies for decades. It's such a hoary cliche that it borders on racism, and the sexual politics are somehow even worse. That nasty torture scene I described above begins when Chang warns the bevy of dolled-up women surrounding him to close their eyes, and each of them quietly follows his instructions with prim, silent obedience.
At best, Refn is relying on tired, lazy sexual and racial archetypes; at worst, he's a sexist and racist.
4. It's an eye-rollingly obvious take on the story of Oedipus:
What little story there is in Only God Forgives hinges on the warped Oedipal relationship between Julian and his mother, an impossibly vindictive Donatella Versace clone played by Kristin Scott Thomas. We learn that Julian was forced to leave the United States for Thailand under "mysterious circumstances," which will be instantly obvious to anyone who has taken a freshman drama course, and he spends the film following her orders and enduring her abuse like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. As Julian's mother, Thomas is saddled with dialogue that consists almost entirely of sexist and racist slurs. (Refn, whose first language is Danish, copped to writing Thomas' lines by asking Gosling to make a list of the worst things you can call a woman in English.) The story goes the only way an Oedipal story can go, and Refn lustily embraces every beat of the tragedy.
If none of those warnings have dissuaded you from seeing Only God Forgives, congratulations! You are the target audience for this movie. I hope you don't regret seeing it.