Director: Nicolas Winding Refn; Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristen Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Tom Burke; Running time: 90 minutes; Certification: 18
While moonlighting at a boxing club in Bangkok, drug-dealer Julian (Gosling) is persuaded by his mother (Scott Thomas) to hunt down and kill those responsible for murdering her son and Julian’s brother, which leads to confrontation with the brutal and ruthless Chang (Pansringarm).
What on earth to make of this film. I absolutely loved Drive, the previous Gosling/Refn team-up, so much so that it was my joint top film of 2011 (with Melancholia). That being the case, the prospect of this follow-up was tantalizing, particularly so after the mesmerizing trailer. It was probably too much to hope that it would top Drive, or even equal it, but one thing’s for certain: I did not expect what I saw.
I think it’s important to make a disconnect from Drive completely if you want to have any chance of finding the payload of this movie. Only God Forgives is much closer in tone to Valhalla Rising than anything else Refn’s done; very experimental, esoteric, subverts expectations, the story is propelled through striking visuals rather than expositionary dialogue, every scene is extremely slow-burning, the atmosphere grumbles and broods, the sudden bursts of extreme violence take you aback (although that’s just Refn to be fair). Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Take Gosling’s character, Julian. He may not be a mute like Rising’s lead character, but he might as well be. If you thought The Driver didn’t talk much, you ain’t seen nothing yet. He barely says a word throughout this, and on those rare occasions when he does, it is literally just a few words, soft and quiet. Obviously it plays to the character, and clearly Refn enjoys using that particular type of silent, reflective lead, but I must admit that on occasion I was just pleading for him to say something, anything, instead of just stare and stare and stare… It gets quite uncomfortable, but then I’d be shocked if that’s what Refn didn’t intend.
I decided to sleep on it before I made a final verdict, because there’s something weirdly alluring about the film, something that subtly bleeds promise, or potential. Something that makes you less certain that you didn’t enjoy it. I thought that by taking a day, that something might shine through…yet I woke up feeling exactly the same. I think the overarching problem is its incoherence. It doesn’t really seem to have a purpose or direction. The plot is threadbare (it only reaches ninety minutes because of how long and drawn-out the shots are) and scenes are thrown in which just don’t seem make any sense – at least not to me. Perhaps I just missed something completely. Regardless, it all just feels a bit tacked together; there’s no conventional narrative to cling to. Again, of course, I’d be shocked if that’s not what Refn intended, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.
On the flip side, this thing looks absolutely gorgeous. Every single shot is vibrant and fluid. The striking lighting rivals Citizen Kane, which in my mind still holds the candle in that department (pun intended), and somehow Bangkok’s seedy, urban criminal underworld looks alluring and beautiful. The cinematography alone is enough to win you over, even if it’s only temporarily, but regardless of your end verdict, this is the one constant that cannot be faulted.
Gosling is great, in his staring, pensive role. To be honest he doesn’t really have all that much to do, but he does it well. He has a magnetism and real charisma on-screen, and I think he’s just getting better and better. An Oscar surely looms in the near future (although I doubt it will be for an uber-violent art house flick like this). Scott Thomas is fantastic, too, as the completely despicable mother. Her scenes with Gosling are wonderfully awkward and uncomfortable.
Yet alas, these were only dots on the wide canvas. I really wanted to love Only God Forgives, but in the end the stunning visuals weren’t enough to override the complete mind-melt that is the narrative. Refn is experimenting and knows exactly what he’s doing, but those experiments become too intrusive and end up leaving the audience in the dust. It forgets to connect on any emotional or physical level (apart from the odd “yikes!” of violence), and while I genuinely did like some of the weirdness, ultimately, as a piece of drama, it stumbles and falls.