Only God Forgives, the next film from Drive director Nicolas Winding-Refn, has been near the top of most film nerds most-anticipated movie lists this year, if not sitting mightily atop all of them like a cinematic gargoyle. After storming on to the North American scene in 2011, all eyes have been on the weird little bugger, waiting to see what he’d do next.
Under the circumstances, he’s probably done the smart thing: Not make Drive again. Because Only God Forgives is most certainly not Drive. Tonally, it has more in common with some of his earlier work, particularly Valhalla Rising; less an “cool and slick” and more “broody and slow-boiling”. Make no mistake, this is a film that’s out to unnerve you, make you uncomfortable, subvert your expectations and make you think. Which isn’t to say Drive wasn’t all those things, but Only God Forgives seems to be playing things a little heavier. Perhaps a bit too heavy.
Ryan Gosling this time around plays Julian, an American living in Thailand after some previous legal troubles, who runs a boxing club as a front for a drug ring with his brother Billy. But after Billy is killed, Julian’s domineering mother Crystal, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, comes to Thailand to seek revenge, bringing the wrath of Chang, a corrupt cop and complete psychopath played by Vithaya Pansringarm, down on the family.
The buzz-word of the film is inaction. Julian, paralyzed by fear of his own violent nature, has made inaction his way of life. He routinely pays hookers to pleasure themselves while he watches, unmoving and participating only in his mind. When his mother verbally abuses him, he doesn’t talk back. And when tempted to violence, he almost invariably backs down. It’s a trope we’ve seen in action movies before: the penitent former killer, determined to restrain his violent nature, but taken to extreme lengths here. Of course, those familiar with this will expect the inevitable moment when that restraint finally breaks in an orgasm of triumphant, righteous carnage. The bar scene in Unforgiven, or the scene every Rambo movie in the series is forced to contain by law. While Only God Forgives does indeed have this scene, things don’t exactly play out the way you’d expect, and in a way that audiences looking for thrills and action may not appreciate.
Gosling, for his part, pulls this off very well, but then “stoic but occasionally violent guy” isn’t exactly anything new on his resume.
Set against Julian and his credo of inaction are Crystal and Chang. Crystal, for her part, is all aggression to Julian’s passivity. From her first scene, she’s angry, short-tempered and spiteful, which Kristen Scott Thomas seems to have a knack for. Make no mistake, you will hate her by the end of the film.
Vithaya Pansringarm seems a bit more hollow, however, as the villain Chang, a stony-faced killer with the ability to pull a sword out of thin air. While previous villains in Refn’s work, like Milos of the Pusher trilogy or Drive‘s Bernie Rose, had the air of put-upon criminals, business men with sadistic streaks, Chang is all psycho. And while he certainly excels at looking scary in white-collared shirts and doing horrible things to peoples’ eyeballs, we only get a brief scene of him with his wife and daughter to indicate there’s anything more to the character than shirts and murder.
Refn himself, who feels like as much of a character in the film as Julian and Crystal, seems almost like a different Director than the one who was bringing hand-camera crime films to his native Sweden back in the late 90s. Every camera movement is smooth and precise, and shots linger more than long enough for people who care about that sort of thing to inspect every detail of the framing. In this way, Only God Forgives tends to feel indulgent at times. Refn seems to revel in his current style of extended slow-motion and stillness. Even in a film whose theme is inactivity, at times it feels like too much energy is being spent lingering on shots of Ryan Gosling staring blankly into the middle distance or Kristen Scott Thomas exhaling a cloud of smoke in slow-motion. Of course, the flipside to this is that the cinematography, framing and compositions are still stunning at times, and the shots of the neon jungle of Thailand and the red-lit underground of Julian’s club are striking to say the least.
While Only God Forgives is a very good film, it’s hard to call it a great film. Even if you accept that it’s dealing far more in metaphor and subtext than anything else, the characters still feel somewhat hollow. While Drive managed to walk the line between style and substance, here it seems style has taken over and is sitting on substance like a small whale attempting to smother a toddler. Audiences looking for a fix of Thai Boxing action will probably leave disappointed, and fans of Drive will probably miss the substance and sincerity of the Refn’s 2011 opus. That just leaves fans of Refn’s work as a whole…who will probably still mark the film as one of the more indulgent of his career, even if it is also one of the prettiest.