Riding high off the critical and commercial success of 2011’s Drive, Nicholas Winding Refn and new-found partner in crime(film-making), Ryan Gosling, re-team on the obsessively brooding Only God Forgives. Does this neon and crimson-soaked tale of ruthless revenge live up to the duo’s prior triumph or does it take a beating under all its own pretensions?
Nicholas Winding Refn has fallen hard for Ryan Gosling, and, honestly, who can blame him? Their previous collaboration, 2011’s love-letter to 70’s crime-and-car capers, Drive, stood as a testament to Refn’s ability to squeeze tension out of every uncomfortable silence and thundering engine roar, not to mention Gosling’s endlessly endearing ability to communicate with others solely through icy, unblinking stares. Critics and audiences alike loved it, and the duo clearly felt there was more movie magic to be had from the blossoming bromance. Lucky for the two, Refn had put one of his personal projects on hold prior to shooting Drive: this project, a revenge tale set in Thailand, promised to be darker and more brutal flick than Drive. There would be fists. There would be blood. There would be immaculate camera work. There would be Gosling. Of Course, if good looks alone could carry 90 minutes on celluloid, perhaps Refn would’ve been on to something here. Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case.
Maybe that “unfortunately” is a bit unwarranted- don’t get me wrong: Only God Forgives is by no means the movie-buff wet-dream that Drive was. That said, it’s hardly a disappointing film when weighed on its own merits. Hauntingly (and sometimes downright beautifully) shot against the neon-tinged backdrop of Bangkok’s many alleys, karaoke bars, and dens of malicious intent, the film is visually absorbing. Refn clearly goes to painstaking lengths to meticulously frame every punch, gunshot, and swing of the sword. Even idle characters take on a hint of artistic exhibitionism, surrounding themselves in creeping strands of cigarette smoke or dousing themselves in crimson store-front street-light.
The soundtrack is hardly a slouch either, for that matter. Cliff Martinez, another Drive alum, does an admirable job imbuing each scene with an appropriate sense of surreal and terrifying electricity. Minimalist synths carry the suspense of a long walk down a dimly lit hallway with understated grace, while the occasional blast of an organ cuts through digitized arpeggios during a climactic duel between protagonists. Martinez’s use of eastern-tinged rolling drums that echo throughout much of the film are key to bolstering OGF‘s pacing, not to mention the audience’s attention to the carnage that usually accompanies it.
If you’ve noticed, I’ve kept talk about silly things like, say, plot and acting, pretty hush-hush up till now. Not that either of those things are particular letdowns here: everyone on screen seems completely game for the task at hand, and the story, in which Gosling’s boxing manager/drug dealer goes on the hunt for those deemed responsible in his older brother’s death, is both seedy and bloody enough to keep your eyes glued to the action behind the slits of your fingers. The trouble is, there just isn’t enough of either to warrant much ado about them.
Gosling’s lead billing is confusing, given he probably has less than 15 spoken lines throughout the whole movie. While his screen-time, as Julian, is considerable, he spends most of it lugging around with a manic, wide-eyed expression plastered over his mug as he stares at hookers, boxers, cops, and his arms, over and over AND over again. Sure, it can be gleamed as symbolic of Julian’s stranger-in-a-strange-place-out-for-vengeance character arc (if that’s what you think you can call it), but whereas Gosling’s titular Driver wore his silence like a badge of badass honor, Julian wears it like a ball and chain weighing down what could easily make for a more engrossing character study.
Likewise, Vithaya Pansringarm plays the near enigmatic Lt. Chang (aka, the not so subtle “Angel of Death”) with comparable restraint, though his icy silence makes far more sense given the near supernatural nature of his hound-of-justice character. The rest of the mostly Thai cast put up a good show (and occasional beating), though the real scene stealer of the flick is a very, very high strung Kirsten Scott Thomas as Julian’s mother, the aptly named Crystal. Offering both an air of venerability and maniacal intensity to this drug queen, Scott Thomas is not only believable in the role, but utterly terrifying. The overt hints at Oedipal interplay between herself and Julian flesh out the film’s commentary on the nature of family between savages, and elevates the film beyond its otherwise run-of-the-mill premise.
One might expect action to be the selling point in a movie like this, however Only God Forgives is far more a mood piece than a standard summer slug-fest. Sure, there’s violence, but most of it is carried out after a quick cutaway, leaving much of the bloodshed (honestly, quite thankfully) to the viewers imagination. Nobody’s head explodes à la Drive‘s shotgun scene, however there are plenty of gnarly fisticuffs and sword disembowelment to be had here. Keep in mind, this is not a film for the squeamish. That said, the violence itself is hardly tasteless, often playing out in a brutal ballet of flying steel and surging red. If anything, this is Refn’s most reserved outing yet, the shockers paling next to his earlier forays into the genre.
Overall, Only God Forgives proves both an equally impressive and frustrating journey, an engrossing and stylish neo-noir piece bogged down by occasional bouts of self-indulgence and a lackluster script. It’s not Drive, but it’s still a helluva movie. And what’s not to like about that?