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Monday, April 29, 2024

11 Years Later: The Horrific Cycles of Violence in ‘Only God Forgives’ Starring Ryan Gosling

Traditionally, movie theater walkouts are usually associated with the horror genre, with infamous cases ranging from 1973’s The Exorcist (particularly during the crucifix masturbation scene) and even Lars Von Trier’s controversial serial killer memoir, The House That Jack Built.

That being said, there are exceptions to this rule, as some movies manage to terrorize audiences into leaving the theater regardless of genre. One memorable example of this is Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2013 revenge thriller Only God Forgives, a film so brutal and inaccessible that quite a few critics ended up treating it like a snuff film from hell back when it was first released. However, I’ve come to learn that horror fans have a knack for seeing beyond the blood and guts when judging the value of a story, and that’s why I’d like to make a case for Winding’s near-impenetrable experiment as an excellent horror-adjacent experience.

Refn originally came up with the idea for Only God Forgives immediately after completing 2009’s Valhalla Rising and becoming confused by feelings of anger and existential dread during his wife’s second pregnancy. It was during this time that he found himself imagining a literal fistfight with God, with this concept leading him to envision a fairy-tale western set in the far east that would deal with some of the same primal emotions present in his Viking revenge story.

It was actually Ryan Gosling who convinced the director to tackle the more commercially viable Drive first, as he wanted to cement his partnership with the filmmaker in a more traditional movie before tackling a deeply strange project. This would pay off during the production of Only God Forgives, as the filmmaking duo was forced to use their notoriety to scrounge up money at a Thai film festival when local authorities began demanding bribes in order to allow shooting to continue.

In the finished film, Gosling plays Julian, an American ex-pat running a Muay-Thai boxing club alongside his sociopathic brother Billy (Tom Burke). When Billy gets himself killed after sexually assaulting and murdering a teenager, Julian is tasked by his disturbed mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) with tracking down those responsible for the death of her first-born child. What follows is a surreal dive into the seedy underbelly of Bangkok as the cycle of revenge escalates and violence leads to even more violence.


There’s no right or wrong way to engage with art, but there are some films that clearly require more effort from the audience side in order to be effective. And while you can’t blame cinemagoers for just wanting to enjoy some passive entertainment, I think it’s always worth trying to meet a work of art on its own terms before judging it.

Despite being a huge fan of Drive, I avoided Only God Forgives for a long time because of its poor critical reception and excessively esoteric presentation. It was only years later that I gave the flick a chance when a friend of mine described the experience as “David Lynch on cocaine.” It was then that I realized that nearly everything critics had complained about in the film are precisely what made it so interesting.

If you can stomach the deliberate pacing, you’ll likely be fascinated by this stylish nightmare about morally questionable people becoming trapped in a needless cycle of violence and retaliation. Not only is the photography impeccable, turning the rain-slicked streets of Bangkok into a neo-noir playground, but the bizarre characters and performances also help to make this an undeniably memorable movie. And while Gosling deserves praise as the unhinged Julian, I’d argue that Vithaya Pansringarm steals the show here as “The Angel of Vengeance,” even if his untranslated dialogue is likely to be unintelligible for most viewers.

However, I think the lack of subtitles ends up enhancing the mood here (even though some editions of the film ended up including them against the director’s wishes), adding to the feeling that Julian is a stranger in a strange land while also allowing viewers to project their own motivations onto some of the “antagonists.”

And while Only God Forgives is frequently accused of burying its narrative underneath a pile of artsy excess, I think the heart of the film is rather straightforward despite its obtuse presentation. I mean, the moral here is basically “revenge isn’t fun,” which I think is made clear by the horrific use of violence (though we’ll discuss that further in the next section).

To be clear, I’m still not sure whether or not I enjoyed this movie, I just know that I’m glad I watched it.


There are two different kinds of gore effects. One of them is meant to entertain viewers with exaggerated wounds and excessive blood as you admire the craftsmanship behind the filmmaking. The other kind is simply a tool meant to simulate what actually happens when you injure a human body. Like I mentioned before, Only God Forgives isn’t trying to be “fun,” so you can guess what kind gore is in this one…

From realistic maimings to brutal fist fights that feel more painful than thrilling, the “action” label on this flick seems downright questionable when the majority of the experience has you wincing at genuinely scary acts of grisly violence. I mean, the story begins with an unmotivated rampage through the streets of late-night Bangkok and ends with the implication of even more pointless violence, so it’s pretty clear that you’re not really meant to root for an “action hero” here.

I can’t even say that the deaths resemble those from slasher flicks because the movie never attempts to sensationalize these horrific acts, with Refn preferring to depict them as straightforward consequences of violent people going through the motions – which is somehow even scarier than if this had just been yet another hyper-violent revenge movie.

Not only that, but the characters’ overall lack of moral principles makes this story even more disturbing, with the main antagonist being the closest thing to a decent person among the main cast despite also being a brutal vigilante.

Only God Forgives doesn’t care if you like it or not (and actually takes measures to make sure that the viewing experience is often unpleasant), but if you’re willing to step up to this cinematic challenge and engage with the narrative and visuals on their own terms, I think you’ll find an unforgettable nightmare waiting for you on the other side.

There’s no understating the importance of a balanced media diet, and since bloody and disgusting entertainment isn’t exclusive to the horror genre, we’ve come up with Horror Adjacent – a recurring column where we recommend non-horror movies that horror fans might enjoy.

The post 11 Years Later: The Horrific Cycles of Violence in ‘Only God Forgives’ Starring Ryan Gosling appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!

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