Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
Plot: When the brother of an American drug smuggler living in Bangkok is murdered, his mother compels him to seek revenge, despite his misgivings.
The last collaboration between unforgettably-named director Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling was Drive, a critically acclaimed and commercially successful film which cemented Gosling’s place among the Hollywood A-List, but also brought Refn to the attention of a wide audience. Lauded by many as the best film of 2011, the bar had been raised in terms of high-quality drama, with interesting characters and a great script. Having delivered on both style and substance, Refn and Gosling combine again for something much more cerebral and arty in Only God Forgives, which has been billed as a journey into the dark recesses of the mind. Given the expectation and hype that Drive created, the question would be whether such a contrasting premise would encourage audiences to see it regardless.
Julian (Gosling) is an American who runs a muay thai club in Bangkok, Thailand, which is used as an outlet for a drug smuggling business. His brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and murders an underage prostitute before he is caught by the Thai police. Lieutenant Chang (Pansringarm) lets the girl’s father Choi Yan Lee (Kovit Wattanakul) exact his revenge by beating Billy to death, but Chang cuts off Lee’s arm for allowing his daughter to become embroiled in prostitution. Julian confronts Lee about what he did to his brother, but lets him go after feeling pity for him. However, Julian’s mother Crystal (Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok, demanding to know why he spared Lee’s life, but Julian retorts that the murder of Billy was justified, much to Crystal’s horror and repulsion. She says that if Julian had been the one murdered, then Billy would have done his family duty.
Julian brings a prostitute, Mai, to dinner, but Crystal is quick to display her disgust with them both. One of the fighters at Julian’s club murders Lee on the orders of Gordon (Gordon Brown), a member of Julian’s crew, encouraged by Crystal. Chang investigates the murder of Lee, but comes to the conclusion that Julian was not responsible. When she discovers that Chang was involved in Billy’s death, Crystal asks Byron (Byron Gibson) to arrange his assassination. Three shooters are sent to a restaurant in order to eliminate Chang, but he manages to escape and finds out who was responsible for putting out a hit on him. Chang then finds Byron in a nightclub and brutally tortures him for information, but to no avail. When Chang is led to Crystal, she pleads with Julian to kill him, before the Lieutenant manage to get to her first.
Only God Forgives reunites Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn presumably in an effort to recreate the success of Drive. Whereas Gosling’s ‘Driver’ actually had a storyline you could actually follow and care about, Julian’s battle with firstly his mother and then Chang amounts to little more than a pretentious staring contest, punctuated by random outbreaks of violence and very bad karaoke. Almost every scene is dark and red, so unbelievably red. Perhaps this is supposed to represent Julian’s inner inescapable hell, which is quite ironic since the entire running time feels like some kind of purgatory at least. Gosling’s incessant smouldering might be an absolute dream for the most impressionable of his fans, but for the rest of us who wouldn’t mind a little character development and an interesting story arc, the arty farty placing of eyes against the thin strips of daylight that emanate through the walls gets rather tedious after just a few minutes. The fundamental flaw with the film though, is not so much its appearance rather that the characters are wholly tedious. There can be few films where there is ‘stuff’ happening on-screen and quite frankly it can be as brutal as possible and yet there’s almost a sadistic joy when each of these dullards gets killed off.
Ryan Gosling probably thought this was an opportunity for him to flex his acting muscles rather than the literal kind and to some degree there is a little spark of potential. However, he is far better off in dramas such as The Place Beyond the Pines (his half of the film was infinitely the more gripping one) and Blue Valentine, in which he proved that he is at ease with complex characters; Julian is meant to have hidden depths, but it is difficult to see what those consist of when he spends most of his time staring at a wall. Gosling does have the odd fight scene to get his teeth into and they are actually a relief due to the fact that he is rather adept at playing precise, violent characters. Kristin Scott Thomas, unusually for her not in a bumbling English comedy or a strange French language drama, is by far the best aspect of the entire production. When she appears, the mood lifts somewhat and the mother-son relationship is explored with interest, rather than the haphazard approach to retribution. Scott Thomas is a very good matriarch and if Meryl Streep is unavailable, then perhaps a director might take a chance on her; she is after all, very dependable. Winding Refn’s direction is all over the place, trying far too hard to be Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg and John Carpenter all rolled into one. Just be yourself Nicolas, there’s a good chap.
Only God Forgives is a bit of a mess. Oddly overrated and too laughably pretentious to be taken seriously, the only thing that could make it worse would have been the casting of Gerard Butler as Julian. If the film has any use at all, it could be utilised as aversion therapy for anyone thinking of singing karaoke in Bangkok.