Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
You may like this if you like: Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011), Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009), watching paint dry
In Bangkok, Julian (Gosling, once again the strong silent type) is a boxing club owner and drug smuggler living a quiet and contained life. Julian’s older brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and murders an underage prostitute, and the father then is subsequently allowed by a police officer called Chang (Pansringarm) to brutally kill Billy and then Chang chops off the father’s right hand to ‘restore order’. When Julian’s estranged mother and head of a powerful criminal organization, Crystal (Thomas) arrives in Bangkok she orders that both the man who killed her son and Chang be killed. So begins a deadly and brutal game of cat and mouse containing vengeance, murder and redemption.
So, here we have a film with the old marmite label. Well, though hate may be a strong word, I seriously did not like Only God Forgives. This is a pure example of pretentious style over substance and I found it to be an extremely boring and pointless 90 minutes. There is no denying this is a film that is immaculately put together with the arrangement of every single shot made with painstaking attention to detail. The use of colours, corridors and rooms certainly suggests that Nicolas Winding Refn and cinematographer Larry Smith may have a few David Lynch films in their DVD collection. There is no denying in my mind that this is an extremely atmospheric mood piece. That is fine by me; I love a good visual film that explains very little, but as long as it is good. Unfortunately for me, Only God Forgives is simply self indulgent rubbish.
Trust me; I really wanted to like this. Only God Forgives has all the right elements in place to be really enjoyable and watchable, but as it slowly bumbles along I found it increasingly boring and irritating. Despite this being a film that takes itself incredibly seriously, I must confess that I did find myself laughing at times. At times it does feel like it is (unintentionally) verging on self parody and as Gosling sits there staring at prostitutes I could not help but laugh.
As for Gosling, he has almost become type cast as the strong silent type. There is no denying he has great screen presence, but he needs to stop now as he is starting to do caricatures of himself. Here he just looks quite bored and is no way menacing or enigmatic. He of course says very little and though it is obvious he has repressed rage burning up inside of him, we have seen it all before now. There is one scene where he shouts, which was a mistake to be included in my view has he has not got the voice for it.
Though Gosling may be the star, I thought he was acted off the screen by his two main co stars. Kristin Scott Thomas plays against type very well and is genuinely nasty and unnerving, as well as an exceptional screen presence. Vithaya Pansringarm was for me the most interesting character, and he gives a subtle but extremely effective performance.
Though it is certainly possible to argue that within the narrative there are various themes such as retribution, honour, male impotence and even perhaps the Oedipus complex, they are only ever hinted at. Even if they are, it was extremely difficult to care. If you want a film to apparently include certain themes then it is very easy to find them, but it may not necessarily mean they are actually there and indeed if the director ever even thought of them in the first place. Though the lack of any real moral code is not an issue for me, I just could not help but find everything extremely pointless. Though there is one single plot development that makes Gosling’s character slightly likeable, I could not care about any of these characters and was quite frankly not fussed if they all got brutally murdered.
Many people have absolutely slobbered over the painstaking attention to detail of every single shot, and though there is no denying that this is a film that looks gorgeous, that for me is not enough. I also appreciate that perhaps Refn has made this film for himself and not to please studio bosses or indeed anyone, but for me Only God Forgives is an example of pure deluded and self righteous arrogance and complacency. It seems that due to the (admittedly deserved) critical and commercial success of Drive studio execs are happy to part with their money to fund Refn’s next film. As he has been given the overused label of ‘visionary director’ these execs simply want to be associated with this trendy and cool director as he makes Drive 2. Well, this is not Drive 2 (and to be fair Refn it does not intend it to be) but this is a director that has in my view let his success go to his head and is pretty much committing hubris. Refn seems to think that intricately created shots and the use of pretty lights is enough to fool people into thinking he has created a good film.
I genuinely hope this film loses money so Refn is brought back down to earth with a serious reality check and goes back to the drawing board. Only God Forgives is the sort of self indulgent rubbish that gives genuinely good art house cinema a bad name. I expect there will be many that disagree with me, but I would strongly recommend against seeing this as it is an alienating, self indulgent and extremely boring piece of tripe.