Ryan Gosling plays Julian, who co-owns a Bangkok boxing club with his older brother, Billy (Tom Burke). When Billy murders a teenage prostitute and is subsequently killed by the girl’s father, Julian is expected to avenge his brother’s death.
Enter Julian’s vicious mother Crystal, an out-of-character turn from a peroxide-blonde Kristin Scott Thomas, as well as an enigmatic plainclothes police officer (Vithaya Pansringarm).
Only God Forgives’ highly-stylised, slick cinematography and intensely graphic violence have divided critics.
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw is impressed, awarding the film five stars and praising its glossy look: “It is ultraviolent, creepy and scary, an enriched-uranium cake of pulp, with a neon sheen.” He congratulates the director on “a bizarre infernal creation, an entire created world of fear, really is gripping. Every scene, every frame, is executed with pure formal brilliance.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Time Out’s Dave Calhoun, who manages only one star for the film. “Style over substance doesn’t really tell the half of it” he says, “you can bathe a corpse in groovy light and dress it in an expensive suit, but in the end that rotting smell just won’t go away.”
Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere agrees. His review begins: “Movies really don’t get much worse than Nicholas Winding Refn‘s Only God Forgives... hyperviolent, ethically repulsive, sad, nonsensical, deathly dull, snail-paced, idiotic, possibly woman-hating, visually suffocating, pretentious.”
Jessica Kiang from Indiewire was more circumspect, criticising the film as a less-satisfying follow-up to Drive, saying Only God Forgives: “delivers what we might have thought we wanted but with diminishing returns: Refn’s trademark visual style is indulged to a dizzying degree... but is unmoored to any kind of satisfying or coherent narrative.”