Written by Guillermo Troncoso.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s films have polarized viewers and critics alike since he burst onto the scene with Pusher back in 1996. His films are often violent and he has an artistic sensibility that pushes his pictures towards the “art-house” side of cinema. Sometimes it works (Bronson, Drive) and sometimes it just doesn’t (Fear X). His latest film, and second film with Ryan Gosling in the lead, falls head-first into the latter.
The simple plot is straight out of an old-school revenge flick. Julian (Gosling) is a drug-dealer working with his brother in Bangkok, Thailand. When his brother is murdered, after brutally killing an underage prostitute, Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives and begins to pressure him into seeking revenge. The hell Crystal begins to raise puts them on a collision course with Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a ruthless man who has his own violent sense of judgement.
To put it simply, Only God Forgives is a bad film. Let me start with the minor points that attempt to redeem this pretentious piece of cinema. The cinematography and art design is certainly impressive – even beautiful. Refn’s camera captures some wonderfully lit, gorgeously designed and interestingly framed shots. It’s as though Refn has seen some excellent films and decided to emulate some of their factors. He does a pretty good job in terms of crafting an interesting shot, the same way a student filmmaker will spend ages trying to copy his favorite frame while failing to think of the film as a whole.
Only God Forgives is violent – very violent. This is by no means a problem, but it is when it feels as though the barbarism on display is simply there as a superficial factor. You can almost hear Refn saying, “Check out how violent and arty I can make this next scene!” Although, those wanting to see Only God Forgives for the “shock-factor” will also be disappointed. The film isn’t relentless in its violence, in fact gore-hounds and action-film aficionados will be pretty disappointed with the scatter-shot, snail-paced approach to the film. In terms of tone, meaning and structure, the film is incredibly frustrating.
It is as though there was a ten-page screenplay that was padded out to make a 90 minute feature. We get dream-sequences, Lynch-esque attempts at metaphor and countless sequences without a word of dialogue. Refn certainly learned the “show don’t tell” rule from the Danish Film School he attended, but I think he missed out on the lesson on creating at least some depth and meaning with what you do “show”. I’m sure there will be those that “find” subtext or even a sense of there being a moral study of some kind. But anyone can throw paint, or in this case blood, on a canvas and call it art.
Gosling fans needn’t sign on either. He sleepwalks through the movie. I guess the character of Julian was supposed to be some kind of brooding soul or some kind of laughable metaphor. Either way, ‘dull’ is the key-word to describe our lead performance. Kristin Scott Thomas is actually quite good as a tough-as-nails gang mother. Her scenes are easily the film’s most interesting points. Also worthy of a mention, Vithaya Pansringarm provides us with a malevolent, creepy presence whenever he’s on screen. Ah, but you see, this bad guy sings karaoke – a lot of it, so he can’t be all bad.
Pretentiousness isn’t a terrible sin in the world of cinema, but an insulting sense of self-reverence and importance isn’t a good thing to have. The best way to describe this film would be if someone gave you a box wrapped in beautiful packaging. Not only do you open it to find it empty, but that person punches you in the face too.
THE REEL SCORE: 3/10