I’m one of the few people who didn’t fall in love with the film “Drive”. Director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling garnered a ton of critical praise for their 2011 crime drama. While I liked the movie, overall I felt it was lightweight with very little underneath its stylized surface. Well let me say “Drive” has nothing on Refn and Gosling’s latest collaboration “Only God Forgives”. This film takes all of “Drive’s” missteps and amplifies them x10. Even worse, it doesn’t have a strong Albert Brooks-like performances to save it from its hollow and lifeless end result.
The film is set in Bangkok where Gosling’s character Julian runs a kickboxing promotion which is a front for a drug dealing operation he runs with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). But Julian’s main job is staring. That’s all he does for 99% of the movie. Much like in “Drive”, Gosling gives another bland, poker-faced performance that never shows a hint of emotion. It’s frustratingly cold and dry – something Refn clearly has a fondness for. For me it grows old and it doesn’t add an ounce of depth to the character. Get used to them because Gosling’s eye-rolling blank stares and emotionless demeanor are ever-present regardless of the situation.
Not to be outdone, Vithaya Pansringarm plays the corrupt police Lieutenant Chang who has Billy killed after he rapes and murders a woman. Chang is brutal, has a god-complex, slow walks like a zombie in a trance, and has a weird fascination with singing in nightclubs. Sounds like a well-rounded chap doesn’t he? I know Refn was shooting for some unique stylistic approach to the Chang character but quite honestly I started laughing whenever he would show up. He is in a constant state of slow motion and he has this one single expression throughout the film. He comes across as a stiff cardboard cutout that will occasionally commit acts of graphic violence.
And speaking of violence, there is a lot of it in “Only God Forgives”. The movie becomes a story of revenge one-upmanship especially when Julian’s wacko mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) shows up to avenge her first born. Thomas is a fine actress but she gets mauled by this lurid over-the-top character she plays. Her men kill one of Chang’s men then he kills one of hers in some gruesome fashion. Rinse and repeat. Refn splatters blood on walls, sprays blood out of gaping wounds, makes us watch an unsettling torture scene, etc. etc. etc. I’m not one that is automatically put off by scenes of graphic violence but none of these felt as if they served a purpose. I figure Refn had something he was trying to say but it never resonated with me.
While Refn may not like strong narratives, deeper characters, or good dialogue he certainly loves mood lighting, long hallways, and gaudy wallpaper. We get a ton of that stuff in “Only God Forgives”. It’s the ultimate example of style over substance. I found the whole exercise to be a pretentious and self-aware mess. I will say that Refn does show hints of brilliance when it comes to framing shots. He also can build tension in a scene when he is able to restrain himself. But those attributes can’t save this film from its dullness and overindulgence. Some will see it as a beautiful piece of stylistic cinema. Personally, I see it quite differently.