Only God Forgives (2013)

Following up the hugely successful Drive was never going to be an easy task, and it is, therefore, understandable that Only God Forgives feels like a far more complicated film than it actually is, not to mention one whose aspirations far outweigh its own reality.

The film reunites director/writer Refn with Ryan Gosling, a man whose brooding presence on a poster, alone, attracts those on both sides of the wider movie-going public, from salivating females, desperate to see him crying/posing with his shirt off, to meathead males, who long to watch him drive around wordlessly, before beating the shit out of some unsuspecting goons. Neither group will be particularly satisfied with Only God Forgives, as not only does it pitch Gosling as a man of even fewer words than his previous incarnation, but it moves at a snail’s pace – possibly slower, if that’s even possible – in spite of the many sequences of bloody, sustained violence. Even the camera moves slowly, snaking around corridors, lingering on seemingly innocuous details, or closed doors, behind which true horrors unfold.

Gosling is Julian, a tortured soul who lives with his brother in Bangkok, running a Thai boxing club as a front for a drug-smuggling operation. As the film opens, Julian’s brother reveals himself to be of a much rougher sort, by raping and murdering a teenage prostitute, a crime for which he pays with his own life. It is then left to Julian to avenge his death but, after chickening out, his ballsy, brash and completely amoral mother shows up to finish the job, thereby setting in motion a terrifying chain of events. Add to this a rogue, Angel Of Vengeance-style local cop, intent on righting the wrongs of his fellow man, and things very quickly go from bad to worse.

What’s perhaps most interesting about Only God Forgives is that, though it clearly believes in its own importance, it doesn’t have a whole lot to say, often literally, with several scenes stretching for minutes as Gosling stares mournfully into the distance, seemingly searching for his next line. As an actor, he has often favoured emoting with his face, instead of his words, but the film is so quiet, that he almost looks as though he’s about to pass out half the time. An outburst, in an alleyway, is clearly meant to shock, but it seems too out of character to have drippy Julian screaming at someone, that it’s almost laughable. The real draw, and indeed main talking point, of Only God Forgives, is not Gosling, but Kristin Scott Thomas’s fierce, revelatory performance as the bleached, perma-tanned, chain-smoking, potty-mouthed Crystal. Every moment she’s onscreen is a joy, and one almost wishes she’d been the focus of the film, as she is a far more interesting character than either of her sons.

Comparisons to Drive are inevitable, and in a lot of ways, Only God Forgives is a far more beautiful, better scored, and altogether more affecting film, but, upon further reflection, there isn’t a whole lot going on beneath its, admittedly gorgeous, surface, and it lacks the heart of its predecessor. Gosling is at his best when he’s being beaten to a bloody pulp, while Scott Thomas isn’t given the screen time she deserves, to truly make her mark as Crystal. Regardless, she is the main reason to see the film, aside from Larry Smith’s stunning cinematography, without which it would surely fall flat. The brooding, techno score gives the frighteningly neon world of Bangkok an even more sinister edge – a travel advertisement this is not – and elevates the tension, even in the film’s dullest moments. The violence is gory and intense, but perfunctory, while the ending strives to deliver a shock that is obvious from the first moment Gosling gazes intensely at his perfectly curled up fists.

All things considered, Only God Forgives is style over substance in the most disappointing way, and it isn’t nearly as clever as it thinks it is. It is still worth seeing, as films with as much scope as this one, whether mishandled or otherwise, should be appreciated for their ambition, and Refn is to be congratulated for refusing to give the masses another Drive. If only he’d given us a fully fleshed out story, with some actual bite, too.

Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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