Two years ago at Cannes, Nicolas Winding Refn turned the festival upside down with his brilliant, swaggering Drive, which reinvented the exploitation genre with an indie edge, and confirmed what we all already knew about Ryan Gosling’s star quality.
Now, with both stars in the ascendancy, the dream double-bill have returned to the scene of their glory, with another seemingly action-oriented vehicle for Gosling to show he’s more than just the pretty-boy lead, or the hopeless wounded romantic he’s played so far in his career. With stuntman and stunt-biker under his belt, it’s not so much of a stretch to accept Gosling as a vengeful gangster on a quest to avenge his fallen brother at the behest of his crime boss mother, which is precisely what the pre-marketing suggested we would see.
The film sees Gosling and his brother Billy (The Hour’s Tom Burke) as Thai boxing club owners, in Thailand, which they run as a front for a drug dealing operation. Unfortunately Billy is a bad boy, and gets himself killed when a local policeman invites the father of a rape and murder victim to take vengeance on him, which prompts the boys’ mother Jenna (a ruthless Kristin Scott Thomas) to head to Bangkok for vengeance.
Sounds like a good film, and a natural progression from Drive, yes? Well, it’s not.
Sadly, Only God Forgives lacks most traditional aspects of entertainment, aside from a few pathetic flutters, and it is the single most self-indulgent mess that has played this year in the festival, and that’s saying something.
Refn out-Refns himself and over-Goslings Gosling, reducing his lead to a passenger who doesn’t ever get the opportunity to actually act in the lush, but hollow landscapes that Refn’s cameras so fetishistically capture.
The director forgets or ignores that you have to actually characterise characters and gets lost in mythologising Gosling entirely, leaving his lines to an absolute, almost comical minimum and spending way too much time lovingly shooting him staring off into middle-distance for no reason.
Yes, the film is extremely good looking but it is also over-insistent, self indulgent and entirely unnecessary – it is for noone other than Refn, and his two dedicated auteurs, announced in the credits as Jodorowsky and Gaspar Noe. The visuals are stunning, and you get the sense that Refn wanted very much to make sure he was getting as much out of his locations scout as possible, but too many shots linger and it’s like he’s created an autistic film, propelled by colour and shape and shot but without the ability to connect with anyone.
Scott Thomas is great fun, and steals the show with some choice, colourful lines, and Vithaya Pansringarm’s cold villain is an archetypal genre villain, but the former is under-used and the latter ends up becoming a sideshow with his odd dedication to post-violence karaoke. Noone has any charm, or anything like a sympathetic motive, and their fates are entirely insignificant by the time the final credits roll, with the only real dramatic tension building around the Oedipal undertones of Scott Thomas and Gosling’s relationship.
And the pay-off of that particular dynamic is about as subtle as a symbolic brick having sex with its mother.
As “critics,” we are supposed to love this film, and some will see openly loving it as some kind of badge of pretension to be savoured (see The Tree Of Life,) but it’s difficult not to feel like Refn has taken all expectations, built false hype and offered a self-congratulatory, self-indulgent mess. And one which would have been about twenty minutes long without the fetishism of locations and Gosling, and the unnecessarily hyper-extended sequences.
It would be foolish not to admit that everyone wanted the director to make a better film than Drive, and unfortunately for fans of that film, and of conventionally entertaining films everywhere, it seems that his answer was simply “why should I?!” The agenda here is infinitely provocative, not only in the careless and casually violent gore and the few sparks of offensive dialogue, but also in the mean-spirited resistance to actually be Drive.
The plot teases, but the script is so sparse as to be almost non-existent, and Refn’s infuriatingly laboured pace is almost provocatively anti-entertainment, particularly when he makes every one of his characters walk as slowly as possible. Perhaps it was all a trick to make us all go back and watch Drive again: and if it was, it was incredibly successful.
Only God Forgives might be closer to Refn’s older, less commercial work but it just isn’t very good, and by far the most pertinent scene comes early on when we watch a girl masturbate while Gosling is tied down to a chair.
Oh, what a wonderful analogy for the entire film.
This article was first posted on May 22, 2013