A Movie Review in Three Acts, or, Only God Forgives

Expectations can make or break a movie. You could wind up hating a decent movie because you thought it was going to be the next Dark Knight. You could wind up loving a god awful movie because you expected it to be the next any movie with Kathryn Heigl.

Ryan Gosling is The Notebook

Ryan Gosling is The Notebook

When I first saw the poster for Only God Forgives, an image of a viciously bruised and beaten Ryan Gosling, my expectations were through the roof. Only God Forgives is something of a spiritual successor to Drive, as it reunites director Nicolas Winding Refn and delicious heartthrob Ryan Gosling.

I love Drive. A lot. Ergo I absolutely could not wait to check out Only God Forgives.

Fortunately or unfortunately – that has yet to be seen – for me, Only God Forgives’ opening weekend must have been a busy one for me because I didn’t get around to seeing it. I did, however, get around to checking out the reviews.

Does anyone like the movie Only God Forgives? Because they’re doing a pretty good job of hiding.

I didn’t end up seeing Only God Forgives in theaters. But I don’t take critics’ word for anything and in the months following the film’s release I couldn’t help but think to myself “what if they just don’t get it and I would get it?”

Also, again, the movie’s poster is really cool.

Now Only God Forgives is on Netflix. Cool poster and all. As of this writing I haven’t seen it yet. But I’m about to hit play. As much as I want to be excited for Only God Forgives, it’s impossible for me to forget about the terrible reception the movie received and how even the less popular movies I’m a fan of aren’t as completely loathed as Only God Forgives. And yet it’s impossible for me not to have a hint of excitement because despite all of the terrible reviews when I hear Refn and Gosling I think Drive.

I haven’t watched Only God Forgives yet, but I’m going to right now. I’m expecting violence, maybe a hint of pretension, quiet Ryan Gosling and probably a pretty cool soundtrack. I’ll get back to you in a paragraph.

 For pacing’s sake take this time to imagine me sitting in an arm chair with a glass of triple distilled scotch, staring at a television screen. If you know what I look like, you’re welcome. If not, just pretend you do. Now pretend I’m making, like, a laughing face. Now a sad face. Now a scared face. Now, like, a reluctant combination of relief and affection like “oh Ryan.” Maybe an angry face too. Finally, pretend I’m exhaling with great exaggeration, you know, like, “wow, oh boy, yikes.”

And we’re back


Going into Only God Forgives my primary concern was that it was going to be filled to the brim with gratuitous violence and make me upset and uncomfortable. A secondary concern of mine was that the movie would just be abrasive and stupid for abrasive stupidity’s sake.

But I never worried that when I finally watched Only God Forgives I would get straight up bored.


Only God Forgives is a gorgeous movie shot at a very deliberate, Kubrick pace. Great care is taken to frame every shot and the camera and actors often linger in a meditative silence long before and after anything actually happens.

It doesn’t rely on cat people and unobtanium, but make no mistake Only God Forgives is a visual masterpiece.

But twenty minutes into the movie even a perfect shot of Ryan Gosling standing in a doorway is just kind of, you know, Ryan Gosling standing in a doorway.

The movie is just as rich in visuals as it is in vague theme, metaphor and symbolism, which more often than not seem like little more than suggestions.

A mysterious, older man appears throughout the streets of Bangkok to pass judgment on those who cross his path, wielding a samurai sword with which he gracefully enforces his verdicts. He’s an Old Testament God walking about a New Testament world turned to rot, corruption and degradation. His word is passed down from on high at karaoke clubs as policemen listen to him intently. He is master of his domain and he tends to it like a garden with equal parts violence and justice.

He also feels more like a symbol than a character.

Check out this fella.

Check out this fella.

Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a somewhat more traditional role, but only in contrast to the aforementioned walking God. He’s a criminal who has spent his life being overshadowed by an older brother whose murder serves as the impetus for the one or two other things that happen in the film. There’s a strong implication that Julian was sexually abused by his mother, played by Kristen Scott Thomas, and much of the movie finds Julian poorly attempting to stomach that abuse by violently lashing out at the world around him then quickly retreating deep within himself, as pretty people are want to do.

Violence is a force of nature in Only God Forgives. It comes for everyone in one way or another, unstoppable as it is brutal. But by the time the credits role it’s clear that violence is pretty much the only plot device the movie offers. It sneaks about the shadows of every shot, waiting to pounce on each character in the form of a rabid outburst or a brutal murder.

If spending an hour and a half patiently waiting for Old Testament ferocity to reach out to the cast of this movie one by one sounds interesting to you, there may yet be hope for Only God Forgives. But keep in mind that that is all the story the movie has to offer.

That and Ryan Gosling beautifully standing in so, so many beautiful doorways.

But wait.

Again, for the sake of pacing, take this time to imagine me going about my day to day life over the course of the week. Sitting at my desk at work, loosening my tie at the end of a day, sitting in traffic, fighting crime, always a little distracted, always slightly preoccupied. Pretend I’ve been sitting in my armchair through sleepless nights, a carousel of nagging thoughts whirling through my head as the quadruple distilled scotch I drink pumps through my veins.

And we’re back.


I watched Only God Forgives just about a week ago.

And I can’t stop thinking about it.

Over the next few days I have no doubt that I’m going to watch the film again. I feel compelled to. I’ll probably show it to my family on Christmas.

Do I remember the groans I uttered when I realized I was only 19 minutes into the movie? Yeah. Do I remember the tears I shed when I later realized I was only 40 minutes through the movie? Most assuredly.

But I also remember, and can’t shake, the notion of an emotionally bruised and battered man hopelessly lashing out at a cruel world and a crueler God.

The world is violent. Whether you live it or read about it there’s no denying that there are hells on Earth. When I dare wander onto a news site or flip to it on my television I am inevitably confronted with the deplorable and the heinous. People suffer at the hands of the cruel every day and hearing about it twists my stomach in knots until a sinister inclination towards violence creeps into my head.

There are some crimes for which jail doesn’t seem enough. There are some crimes for which death doesn’t seem enough.

Only God Forgives may be boring and slow, but it is a perfect communication of the desire for justice through the inconceivable suffering of the cruel and hatred for a world that never seems quite just enough.

In conclusion, I still can’t even tell if I like Only God Forgives or not. But if nothing else I can confidently say that the film itself is far more thought-provoking than anything you’re going to read or hear about it.

If you’re enough of a masochist to want to hear me babble on about Only God Forgives even more, you can check out Episode 4 of the Pillow Talk Podcast, which airs on Sunday, December 29th.