Review: “Only God Forgives” (2013)

The Bottom Line: Nicholas Winding Refn’s film takes a lot of risks that sometimes pay off, sometimes not.



Produced by: Lene BørglumSidonie DumasVincent Maraval

Written and directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Ryan GoslingKristin Scott ThomasVithaya PansringarmGordon BrownYayaying Rhatha PhongamTom Burke

Intro: Filmed on location in Bangkok, Thailand, this Danish-French co-production premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in France (where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or , but also apparently booed by viewers) in May, 2013. Its United States release occurred at the Los Angeles Film Festival the following month. Produced by Bold FilmsFilm i VästGaumont, and Wild Bunch (with production support by A Grand Elephant) and distributed in the USA via RADiUS-TWC (theatrical), Anchor Bay Entertainment (Blu-ray & DVD), and the Weinstein Company (all media), the film reportedly grossed $9,743,738 worldwide (as of 18 August 2013) on an estimated budget of $4,800,000.

Plot Summary: In Bangkok, Thailand, two white American brothers, Julian (Gosling) and Billy (Burke), run a muay thai boxing club that is a front for their cocaine and heroin smuggling business. Billy is killed in revenge for raping and murdering a sixteen year-old Thai prostitute. His mother Crystal (Thomas) — who is also part of the family illegal drug business — flies from the U.S. to Bangkok to “claim the body.” She demands that Julian avenge older brother Billy’s death by killing whoever murdered him. Unfortunately, Bangkok police lieutenant Chang (Pansringarm) is involved in the case — in a most unorthodox manner. Driven by his mother’s insistence, haunted by his mixed feelings about Billy, and dogged by his sexual hangups (which he acts out with Mai [Phongam]), Julian’s actions lead to a showdown with the self-righteous Chang. In this film’s twisted world of sex, violence, and vengeance, can anyone be forgiven for their sins?

Commentary: This is a film that takes risks and pushes boundaries. Sometimes it succeeds; sometimes it doesn’t. The quick cuts between action and fantasy are sometimes effective, sometimes confusing.

Julian is a tortured soul who wants to be punished for his sins. His very Oedipal family background has a lot to do with this, although it would give away too much of the plot to reveal exactly how this works for him. It is as if Chang is the incarnation of Julian’s conscience. However, Chang has a much broader agenda, related to his own relationship with his young daughter.

Although this film is definitely a noir-ish crime thriller, it also has a lot to say about the relationship between the Thais of Bangkok and the farang who exploit them. Let’s just say that there are few characters in this movie to like — on both sides. However, they are portrayed fairly well by the cast. In my opinion, the Thai actors outshine the Westerners in this movie.

I really want to like this film more than I do, but I feel that its story line is a little thin, the ending a bit abrupt. The overall risks taken are too great. However, the cinematography of the dark, seedy, dangerous Bangkok that the film creates is a reason to watch it.

Film Facts (from IMDB):

  • MPAA Rating: R
  • Runtime: 90 minutes
  • Sound Mix: Dolby Digital
  • Color: Color
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1