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Only God Forgives

Reservoir Dane

Only God Forgives

It’s not an entirely apt analogy, but in many ways Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is the Quentin Tarantino of Euro cinema. His nihilistic films, beginning with 1996’s Pusher, combine violent, often gruesome content with highly stylized technique. American audiences are most likely to know him for Drive, which starred Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stuntman and getaway driver who gets in trouble with gangsters. The version released in the US was shorn of some of its more extreme violence.

Gosling is also in Refn’s newest film, but don’t be expecting Drive II. Only God Forgives has a title recalling the 1968 spaghetti western Chiedi perdono a Dio... non a me (God Forgives, I Don’t). It concludes with a dedication to Refn’s friend Alejandro Jodorowsky that should have been put at the beginning of the film so that audiences familiar with Jodorowsky’s hallucinogenic oeuvre (El Topo, The Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre) would have some idea what to expect.

Set in Bangkok, Only God Forgives is a nightmare of guilt and revenge as experienced by Julian (Gosling), an American who runs a kickboxing hall as a cover for his family’s drug smuggling activities. His brother is killed, with some justification, by an ex-cop (Vithaya Pansringarm) who dispenses justice with a bushido blade he keeps tucked in the back of his shirt.

Realizing that his brother got what he deserved, Julian is inclined to let the matter lie. But he is prodded into evening the score by his mother, played by the unlikely Kristin Scott Thomas as a floridly foul-mouthed harridan. (If she reminds you of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, it won’t be the first time David Lynch’s film comes to mind.) Unlike Tarantino, Refn is not known for his sense of humor, but this character is the exception: her extravagantly profane harangues are so outrageous that you can’t not laugh.

Not all of these plot details are clear in the film, or at least they weren’t in the online screener I watched. (Wouldn’t you think distributors would be concerned that film reviewers be shown their product in the best possible light? You would be wrong.)

Only God Forgives can hardly be said to have a plot, just a succession of violent confrontations played with dreamlike implacability. The violence is not played for excitement, with the zooming cameras and machinegun editing common to most current action films. Instead, Refn moves slowly, staring at his garishly colored set-ups as if daring us to look away. During a scene in a nightclub that begins with the cop telling some women to keep their eyes closed during what is about to happen, you might want to do so as well, though the ensuing screaming is just as bad.

Beautiful and appalling, mesmerizing and maddening, Only God Forgives is clearly not for all audiences. During its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, there were walk-outs and boos, but those who stayed to the end gave it a standing ovation. The three dozen international critics excerpted on the website Metacritic give it scores ranging from 100 to zero, evenly distributed throughout that range.

See it if you think it’s something you might have a taste for. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Watch the trailer for Only God Forgives

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