At its best, streaming video offers the potential for discovery — the chance to track down and reappraise a hidden gem which you’d never have seen otherwise. For the month of August, I’ll be counting down movies that were panned by critics when they were originally released, and arguing that they’re actually worth a second look.
Only God Forgives has been polarizing from the very beginning, when its 2013 premiere at Cannes earned both a chorus of boos and a standing ovation. With just 40 percent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, a plurality of critics dinged Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn “failing to add enough narrative smarts or relatable characters to ground its beautifully filmed depravity.”
When the film hit theaters in the United States, my own take was more or less in line with that consensus. My original review called Only God Forgives ”stupid, needlessly gory, and generally unpleasant,” while acknowledging that I was very happy I had seen it — once.
I would stand behind all of the negative charges I leveled against the film — but more than a year after its release, I’ve gained a new appreciation for Only God Forgives' mesmerizing style and rhythm. Coming on the heels of Drive — his biggest hit, both critically and commercially, by an enormous margin — Nicolas Winding Refn fearlessly exploited his expanded cachet to deliver a blood-drenched, almost perversely uncommercial movie that pulses with its own dark vision.
Drive star Ryan Gosling re-teamed with Refn to star as Only God Forgives' Julian, in a role that requires him to speak just 17 lines over the course of the film. Julian — an expat drug dealer living in Bangkok — winds up at the center of a nightmarish revenge spiral that begins when his brother Billy rapes and murders a 16-year-old girl. In retaliation, a stoic, brutally effective police lieutenant (Visthaya Pansringarm) allows the girl's father to seek revenge, and Billy winds up dead. In retaliation for that crime, Gosling’s grieving mother — a crass, sadistic egomaniac played beautifully by Kristin Scott Thomas — demands that Gosling seek revenge on everyone she deems complicit in Billy’s murder.
Despite its bloody, twisty-sound narrative, Only God Forgives is less of an action movie than an arthouse movie. The film takes place in a lurid, neon-drenched vision of Bangkok, and its brutal and unsparing acts of violence are punctuated by long, languorous walks down hallways or karaoke performances.
Only God Forgives will not be for everybody. At first, I didn’t think it was for me. But daring films can take some time to settle on the palate, and Only God Forgives' strengths have gradually eclipsed its flaws in my mind. Maybe it'll be to your taste too.
Your weekly streaming recommendation: Only God Forgives