Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
Spoilers Within: Yes
Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest Hollywood venture is best not thought of as a Hollywood venture at all. Combining elements of the artistry of his Norse-chieftain-discovers-self fantasy caper Valhalla Rising, and the split-second ultra violence from 2011s breakthrough Drive, with a – perhaps unhealthy – deluge of Oedipal desires; Only God Forgives should best be described as an near-silent nightmare of associated visuals, not the action-driven thriller that the misguided marketing suggests.
Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a taciturn character with none of the pathos of his similarly monosyllabic Driver, who runs a Thai-Boxing ring in Bangkok as a front for his drug smuggling. The problem with transferring a virtually similar character from one film to another is that – in Drive’s case – the silence was punctuated by accompanying moments of character development and a sustained kinetic energy, whereas with Only God Forgives in question, silence and inertia can only take you so far. In this case, it’s not nearly far enough.
In the criminal underworld, you’re never too far from the deplorable figures which fill the red-tinted hallways, and there is no exception here. Replete with a cast-full of the nastiest characters in (what has been marketed as) a mainstream movie, Only God Forgives will test the viewer’s patience in how much implicit rape, observed dismemberment, and persistent vulgarity they will endure. Both this and Drive entertain a moment of torture, wherein the victim is assaulted in a room full of women used merely as a background statuettes – Drive’s hammer-and-bullet threat is this time changed up with a series of impaling’s by metal chopsticks; but where the previous crime thriller succeeded in making such imagery into a bizarre dreamscape, Chang’s (Vithaya Pansringarm) malevolence simply reflects Refn’s sensibilities and determined brutishness.
Despite being more articulate than Julian, the rest of the cast have an evenly nominal amount of things to do. The opening scenes of Julian’s animalistic brother Billy (Tom Burke) are merely there to establish how vile he is; a questionable move when his grisly demise becomes the catalyst for Julian’s actions; the introduction of Kristin Scott Thomas’ perpetually profane Crystal and the supposed – but inconceivable – compassion from the audience. The small cast are nothing more than cyphers, a problem that periodically highlights the shortcomings. These imperfections are also frequently emphasised by the frustratingly superfluous interruptions – i.e. the karaoke warblings or arbitrary dreamlike sequences – which only succeed in highlighting Refn’s distinct lack of a coherent narrative.
In defiance of my dissatisfaction with the film, the citation in the first line of the credits challenged my opinion of portions of the 90 minutes that preceded it. The dedication for Alejandro Jodorowsky – the octogenarian Chilean director of some of the most violently surreal and religiously provocative films of the ‘70s and ‘80s (The Holy Mountain and El Topo to name two) – made me reconsider whether or not I had partly missed Refn’s point; to the extent that further examination yielded similarities of the film’s themes of redemption, religion and maternal lust. However, unlike Jodorowsky’s blackly comic Sante Sangre (of which direct references can be found here), the only humour that comes from Refn’s protracted misfire is at its expense.
To the films benefit, both the cinematography and the soundtrack are terrific (both previous Refn collaborators; Larry Smith for Bronson and Cliff Martinez for Drive respectively), but perhaps too consciously. The framing of the actors in the center of the screen works for the most part, but often becomes too purposeful, which retracts from the fascinating lighting and backdrops that Smith has engineered.
Perhaps now that Refn has made the film he wanted to make – one seemingly made for no one else – he could get back to the dizzying heights of Drive’s restless energy; perhaps working from another’s screenplay rather than his own could bring him there. Until then, I await his next film with much apprehension.