The Brutal Truth


Ryan Gosling’s hands are not mightier than a sword in “Only God Forgives.”

My editor, who is smart and handsome and just awesome and definitely does not insert his own stuff into my column, and I were talking a couple of weeks back about his surprise that I liked “Only God Forgives.” I’m vocal (often LOUDLY VOCAL) about my distaste for gratuitous violence in film, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film has a prominent character with a fondness for a giant sword and the slicing and dicing capabilities thereof.

I’d be a complete liar if I said I wasn’t hiding behind my notebook for a few scenes — luckily, there’s usually plenty of warning about impending violence because, well, the sword comes out of the sheath — but I’ll defend the blood and gore in “Only God Forgives.”

I’m very much anti-gratuitous violence. The violence in “God” is actually reasonable, especially compared to the senseless destruction seen in, for example, “Man of Steel.” There, buildings collapse and streets buckle without a single visible dead Metropolisian (Metropolisite? Metropean?). Beyond being just stupid, the final Superman-vs.-Zod battle shows a callous disregard for the actual consequences of warfare. Two aliens battling it out can be made believable, but dropping dozens of downtown skyscrapers means someone is going to get hurt. A lot of someones.

Bloodless, skimmed-over depictions of violence in film, where we’re expected to cheer as nameless extras fall to the ground perfectly intact, desensitize us to what brutality really looks like. In “Only God Forgives,” when people get their hands sliced off, they bleed a lot. I’m assuming that when someone gets his hands sliced off in real life, he bleeds a lot. There’s an extended torture scene in the film, too, that’s excruciating to watch (or listen to, if you’re me) — because it SHOULD be excruciating to watch someone get tortured.

“Only God Forgives” isn’t for the weak of heart, nor is it for the weak of stomach. It’s the rare film (similar to Refn’s previous effort, “Drive”) that uses violence specifically to make the audience sit up and take notice of what happens when you end up on the wrong side of bad guys. It’s not pretty, but it is real.

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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Holley Simmons · August 1, 2013