Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives

Teaser poster
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Produced by
Written by Nicolas Winding Refn
Music by Cliff Martinez
Cinematography Larry Smith
Edited by Matthew Newman
Distributed by RADiUS-TWC
Release dates
  • 22 May 2013 (2013-05-22) (Cannes)
  • 30 May 2013 (2013-05-30) (Denmark)
  • 19 July 2013 (2013-07-19) (United States)
Running time
90 minutes[1]
  • Denmark
  • France[2]
Language English
Budget $4.8 million[3]
Box office $10.3 million[4]

Only God Forgives is a 2013 Danish-French psychological thriller crime drama film written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Vithaya Pansringarm.[2][5] The film was shot on location in Bangkok, Thailand,[6] and, as with Drive,[7] is dedicated to Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky.[8] It competed for the Palme d'Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.[9]


Julian is an American expatriate who runs a Muay Thai club in Bangkok, Thailand as a front for drug dealing. His older brother Billy rapes and kills an underage sex worker and is cornered by Thai police. Lieutenant Chang allows the girl's father, Choi Yan Lee, to beat Billy to death in the same room Billy killed the girl. Chang then cuts off the father's forearm for allowing his daughter to be a sex worker.

Julian also engages in aberrant sexual practices. He prefers to be bonded as he watches his favorite prostitute, Mai, masturbate. Upon discovering his brother has been murdered, Julian and his crew go to Choi's kiosk to confront him. He decides to spare Choi's life after hearing about Chang's involvement. When Julian's mother, Crystal, arrives in Bangkok to identify Billy's corpse, she demands Julian find and kill the men responsible for Billy's death. He refuses—believing Choi was justified in avenging the death of his daughter—infuriating Crystal. Fascinated by his sense of justice, Julian imagines meeting Chang in a dark room, where Chang cuts Julian's hands off.

Julian brings Mai to meet Crystal, posing as his girlfriend. Crystal sees through the ruse, insulting Mai and demeaning Julian, pronouncing him to be sexually inferior to his dead brother. Julian is passive to Crystal's verbal abuse, but his aggravation results in him viciously humiliating Mai afterwards. At Crystal's request, one of the fighters at Julian's boxing club assassinates Choi. Later, the police arrive at Julian's club, but Chang concludes that Julian is not Choi's killer. Julian recognises Chang from his visions and follows him from the boxing club, but Chang seems to disappear into thin air.

After learning that Chang was involved in Billy's death, Crystal meets with an associate, Byron, to arrange Chang's assassination. Three gunmen on motorbikes are sent to kill Chang at a restaurant, which results in several customers and two of Chang's men being killed in a shoot-out. Chang kills two of the gunmen, follows the third on foot, and beats him with a frying pan. The surviving gunman leads Chang to his boss, Li Po, who has resorted to arranging assassination contracts as a means of providing for his crippled son. Chang then kills the gunman but spares Li Po after seeing his affection for his son. Li Po points Chang to Byron, who ordered the hit. Chang finds Byron in a club and tortures him to reveal the reasoning behind the hit.

Julian confronts Chang and challenges him to a fight at Julian's boxing venue. Chang, an experienced boxer, quickly beats Julian, who does not land a single blow. Afterwards, Crystal tells Julian that Chang has figured out she ordered the hits. Fearful for her life, she pleads with Julian to kill Chang, the same way she asked Julian to kill his own father for her. She promises that after Julian kills Chang, they will go back home, and she will be a true mother to him.

With his associate Charlie Ling, Julian infiltrates Chang's home after shooting Chang's guard dead, intent on ambushing Chang when he returns. Charlie informs Julian that Crystal instructed him to execute Chang's entire family. Charlie murders the nanny of Chang's daughter as she enters the home, but Julian kills Charlie before he can murder Chang's young daughter.

Chang and a police officer find Crystal in the hotel she is staying at. She explains how Julian killed his father with his bare hands, asserting to Chang that Julian is violent and deranged, blaming him for the violent crimes committed in the family's name. Chang decides to punish her by cutting her throat. Later, Julian returns to the hotel and finds his mother's corpse. In silence, he approaches her body and cuts open her abdomen before placing his hand inside of the wound.

Julian is later shown standing in a field with Chang, who appears to cut off both of Julian's hands with his sword. Finally Chang is singing at a karaoke bar to an audience of attentive police officers.



Refn has said that "[f]rom the beginning, [he] had the idea of a thriller produced as a western, all in the Far East, and with a modern cowboy hero."[3] He originally planned to direct Only God Forgives directly after Valhalla Rising (2009), but he accepted Gosling's request to direct Drive instead.[22] Gosling has described the script of Only God Forgives as "the strangest thing I've ever read and it's only going to get stranger."[12] Like Drive, the film was largely shot chronologically and scenes were often edited the day they were shot.[3]

Footage was screened at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.[23] Refn drew a connection between Only God Forgives and Drive, saying that "[Only God Forgives] is very much a continuation of that language"—"[i]t's based on real emotions, but set in a heightened reality. It's a fairy tale."[22]


The film received a very divided response at its Cannes press screening; it was booed by many of the audience of journalists and critics while also receiving a standing ovation.[16][24] It received a polarizing response from mainstream critics: review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 40% based on reviews from 152 critics, with a weighted average of 5.2/10 and the site's consensus states: "Director Refn remains as visually stylish as ever, but Only God Forgives fails to add enough narrative smarts or relatable characters to ground its beautifully filmed depravity."[25] Metacritic assigns the film a weighted average rating of 37 out of 100 based on the reviews of 39 professional critics.[26]

Robbie Collin of The Daily Telegraph reflected concerns over the film in a three out of five star review. "The film's characters are non-people; the things they say to each other are non-conversations, the events they enact are non-drama," he wrote. But he praised Refn for following up his commercially successful film Drive with "...this abstruse, neon-dunked nightmare that spits in the face of coherence and flicks at the earlobes of good taste".[27]

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave it five out of five stars, calling it gripping and praising the "pure formal brilliance" of every scene and frame, though he notes that it will "have people running for the exits, and running for the hills" with its extreme violence.[28] In an alternative review published in The Guardian, John Patterson was highly critical of the film, citing its lack of originality and the low degree of focus on plot: "Somewhere in here is a story that Refn can hardly be bothered to tell... I feel the ghosts of other movies—his influences, his inspirations—crowding in on his own work, suffocating him, and somehow leaving less of him on screen."[8]

Bill Gibron of PopMatters wrote "David Lynch must be laughing. If he had created something like Only God Forgives, substituting his own quirky casting for the rather staid choices made by actual director Nicolas Winding Refn, he would have walked away from Cannes 2013 with yet another Palme d'Or, another notch in his already sizeable artistic belt, and the kind of critical appreciation that only comes when a proven auteur once again establishes his creative credentials."[29]

Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times gave this film a positive review, giving it three and a half stars saying: "Refn's follow-up effort to the similarly polarizing Drive (which I thought was flat-out great) is even more stylized and daring. Drive star Ryan Gosling (who is clearly interested in carving out a career with at least as many bold, indie-type roles as commercial, leading-man fare) strikes a Brando pose playing Julian, a smoldering, seemingly lethal American who navigates the seediest sides of Bangkok."[30]

In 2015, the film was included in The Guardian's top 50 films of the decade so far.[31]


The film won the Grand Prize at the Sydney Film Festival.[32]


  1. "ONLY GOD FORGIVES (18)". British Board of Film Classification. 28 June 2013. Archived from the original on 2013-07-03. Retrieved 1 May 2014.
  2. 1 2 Debruge, Peter (22 May 2013). "Only God Forgives". Variety. Retrieved 15 December 2013.
  3. 1 2 3 Jagernauth, Kevin (30 March 2012). "Nicolas Winding Refn Talks Making Only God Forgives & Considers Tokyo Setting For Horror I Walk With The Dead". The Playlist. IndieWire. Retrieved 10 July 2012.
  4. Only God Forgives at Box Office Mojo Retrieved 28 June 2013
  5. Buchanan, Jason. "Only God Forgives". Allmovie. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 15 December 2013.
  6. "Hard Drive". Bangkok Post. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
  7. Lim, Dennis (22 May 2011). "Cannes Q. and A.: Driving in a Noir L.A.". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 August 2013.
  8. 1 2 Patterson, John (27 July 2013). "Only God Forgives this level of tedium". The Guardian. Kings Place. Retrieved 30 July 2013.
  9. "2013 Official Selection". Cannes. 18 April 2013. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
  10. 1 2 Goldberg, Matt (2 November 2011). "First Synopsis for Nicolas Winding Refn's ONLY GOD FORGIVES Starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Ryan Gosling". Retrieved 11 July 2012.
  11. Fischer, Russ (23 June 2011). "Ryan Gosling Joining Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives [Updated]". /Film. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
  12. 1 2 Otto, Jeff (26 September 2011). "Ryan Gosling Calls Upcoming Project Only God Forgives The "Strangest Thing" He's Ever Read". The Playlist. IndieWire. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
  13. 1 2 Mackey, Michael (27 January 2012). "Ryan Gosling Responds to Oscar Snub; Reveals Details of Project Filming in Bangkok". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 10 July 2012.
  14. Patches, Matt (22 May 2013). "Cannes: Ryan Gosling Only Has 17 Lines in the Bloody Only God Forgives". Retrieved 31 August 2013.
  15. Arbeiter, Michael (19 July 2013). "The Mysterious Bromance of Ryan Gosling and His Only God Forgives Director Nicolas Winding Refn". Retrieved 1 November 2013.
  16. 1 2 "Cannes jeers Gosling's film Only God Forgives". The Local. 22 May 2013. Retrieved 22 May 2013.
  17. Fischer, Russ (2 May 2011). "Nicolas Winding Refn Casts Luke Evans and Kristin Scott-Thomas in Thai Western Only God Forgives". /Film. Retrieved 10 July 2012.
  18. Umstead, Ben (17 July 2013). "'Ask Not What Art Is, But What It Is Not': Nicolas Winding Refn And Cliff Martinez On ONLY GOD FORGIVES". Twitch. Retrieved 18 August 2013.
  19. Barlow, Helen (18 July 2013). "Only God Forgives: Nicolas Winding Refn interview". Retrieved 18 August 2013.
  20. Dang, Simon (11 May 2011). "Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives Adds Vithaya Pansringarm And Pop-Star Yaya Ying". The Playlist. IndieWire. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
  21. Labrecque, Jeff (1 March 2012). "Ryan Gosling's Thailand gangster film goes to Radius-TWC". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
  22. 1 2 Sullivan, Kevin P. (15 June 2012). "Only God Forgives Will Share The 'Language' Of Drive". MTV Movies Blog. Retrieved 10 July 2012.
  23. Sullivan, Kevin P. (25 May 2012). "Ryan Gosling's Only God Forgives Debuts Footage At Cannes". MTV Movies Blog. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
  24. "Ryan Gosling film Only God Forgives divides Cannes critics". BBC News. 23 May 2013. Retrieved 23 May 2013.
  25. "Only God Forgives". Rotten Tomatoes. Warner Bros. Retrieved 27 September 2013.
  26. "Only God Forgives: Reviews". Metacritic. CNET Networks, Inc. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
  27. Collin, Robbie (22 May 2013). "Cannes 2013: Only God Forgives, review". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 22 May 2013.
  28. Bradshaw, Peter (22 May 2013). "Cannes 2013: Only God Forgives – first look review". The Guardian. Kings Place. Retrieved 22 May 2013.
  29. Gibron, Bill (19 July 2013). "Only God Forgives, Not this Fascinating Film's Director". PopMatters. Retrieved 19 July 2013.
  30. Roeper, Richard (18 July 2013). "Every bloody moment demands attention in Only God Forgives". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 18 July 2013.
  31. Bradshaw, Peter (5 January 2015). "Peter Bradshaw's top 50 films of the demi-decade". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 April 2015.
  32. Bulbeck, Pip (18 June 2013). "Ryan Gosling Starrer Only God Forgives Wins Sydney Film Prize". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 15 July 2013.
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