Film Review - Only God Forgives (2013)

figure. 1 Film Poster

Only God Forgives (2013)

Starring Ryan Gosling as Julian Thompson the film Only God Forgives blends aesthetics of red and blue to create a heavily stylized and in turn, unrealistic world. Shot in Bangkok the often overused idea of an Asian country having seedy back-streets with ruthless gangs start to emerge, but director Nicolas Winding Refn does valiantly in his portrayal of the police as otherworldly beings with the American Ex-pat being the troublemakers. All except for Julian.

figure.2 Karaoke Room

Whilst we never completely find out about the what-seems-to-be leader of a small police unit in the area, his motives are extremely transparent. Wielding a “sword of judgement” of sorts, he will take revenge on those who he feels deserve the punishment. It is only till the very last scene, where Julian (suggested) gets his arms cut off. The scene is bleached white and whilst the previous swipes of judgement from God-like Lt. Chang had been ruthless and vengeful, Julian’s was much more peaceful. An ending of solitude but also acceptance of any wrong-doing. - Even if Julian was not the one to commit any. He had been manipulated by his mother, and the people he knew around him killed. He was the only one to get away in an act of retribution.

figure.3 Julian's hands in preparation for retribution.

The character of Julian can be a complex one, but with most of Only God Forgives remaining dormant it is left up the viewer to read into and even potentially create a substantial enough story to follow along with. With story taken away, Only God Forgives stays as a well chosen work of not exactly precise, but throughout light work. Symmetrical hallways similar to that of The Shining (1980) and Suspiria (1977) are often found within the spectacles of reflective blues and reds; coupled with extreme darks often only revealing the face of an actor in-thought. Especially Julian. Throughout he is dazed and in deep reflection, this shown as if he is too preoccupied with his own qualms to properly listen to other people; and as such their voices become blurs in the background.
Only God Forgives doesn’t have a set title track, and doesn’t use music as such. The only exception to this being the karaoke from Lt. Chang creating the most off-putting atmosphere as he sings “Until the end of time, I won't forget.” The Karaoke acting as an explanation for all the silent pauses where dialogue isn’t in Refn’s Only God Forgives ties it together nicely from beginning to end. “Only God Forgives is about the way time stands still in the darkness, and nothing articulates this better than the scenes in which the Angel relaxes after a hard day’s vengeance, crooning melancholy Thai pop songs to an audience of unblinking cops.” (Wise, n.d.) The “Angel” being Lt. Chang. - the Angel of Vengeance is arguably more important than Julian in terms of his moral importance with smiting the unjust and his infinite knowledge of any wrong-doing. In this way, he is otherworldly.

figure. 4 Lt.Chang Karaoke

Sound effect-heavy the violence whilst brutal and sluggish can be forgiven in creating some form of action and an anthropomorphic realisation of what repentance and guilt eventually builds up to feel like. “Refn's film is bloated, corpulent and borderline repulsive – yet there's something magnificent about it just the same.” (Brooks, 2013) Only Julian feeling guilt regardless of actually doing anything punishable is one of the great mechanisms that Only God Forgives demonstrates. He is constantly removed from all the action as he reminisces and fantasizes almost cautiously his role as the main-character centres him within the midst of it all. If Julian Thompson was a less important character and a dark-horse type of sidekick it arguably would work but the sensitivity of Julian’s “emptiness” and large character-flaws are what makes the film surrounded in shadow tinted with red and blue so effective. "an immaculately constructed production where every shot is a masterpiece." (Aldrich, 2013) Every shot may be a masterpiece but whilst Only God Forgives is very much an Art-house film, the story and under-layers included in it feel hidden back in the dark only for the viewers to decide how they want to interpret it.


Illustration List

Refn, N. (2013). Film Poster. [image] Available at: [Accessed 9 Dec. 2014].

Refn, N. (2013). Film Still 1. [image] Available at: [Accessed 9 Dec. 2014].

Refn, N. (2013). Film Still 2. [image] Available at: [Accessed 9 Dec. 2014].

Refn, N. (2013). Film Still 3. [image] Available at: [Accessed 9 Dec. 2014].

Wise, D. (n.d.). Empireonline Reviews | Reviews | Empire. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Dec. 2014].


Aldrich, R. (2013). Cannes 2013 First Impression: ONLY GOD FORGIVES Is A Hyper-Violent Feast For The Senses. [online] Twitch. Available at: [Accessed 9 Dec. 2014].

Brooks, X. (2013). Cannes film festival diary: day eight. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 9 Dec. 2014].

Wise, D. (n.d.). Empireonline Reviews | Reviews | Empire. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Dec. 2014].


  1. Well thought through Ella :)
    Don't forget to italicise your film names and quotes though!

    1. Oh nooo it must have been where I pasted it from Google Drive it didn't save the italics, i'll go back through! And thank you!