Nicolas Winding Refn has established himself as a stylist beyond compare over the course of his career. The Danish filmmaker responsible for Drive, the Pusher trilogy, Fear X, and Valhalla Rising certainly knows his way around a camera and a set, but in his latest film and second teaming with actor Ryan Gosling, the cracks in the auteur’s glowing façade begin to show horribly. Only God Forgives is an endlessly pretty, but astoundingly boring and brutal exercise that shows the filmmaker is nothing without a proper story to back him up. The lights are certainly on and turned to the brightest possible settings, but it’s as empty as a neon factory where only the gas itself floats in the air.
A sword packing Thai law enforcer (Vithaya Pansringarm) locks a violent American ex-pat pedophile in a room with the father of the 14 year old girl the perpetrator just murdered so vengeance can be sought. The brother of the pedophile (Gosling) and owner of a Muay Thai boxing gym gets browbeaten by his domineering coke dealing mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) to track down those responsible for the death of her more favoured son.
Those familiar with Refn’s work prior to his breakout success in North America with Drive won’t be shocked by the rampant out-of-the-gate brutality that he brings to this seedy South Asian crime saga, but the uninitiated will probably be distanced almost immediately. The brutality and heinous crimes committed by all involved isn’t the issue here, but rather Refn’s complete inability to do anything other than string a bunch of beautifully staged and shot horrific images together. In fairness to Refn, that seems to be all he’s going for and that he could care less about these characters and their situation himself. His own story seems to bore him so much that he probably devoted most of his time on set to make sure the lighting was right, the plants selected were in the right spots, and every one of his actors were oh-so-elegantly dishevelled.
Earlier this year when To the Wonder came out, many people said that it exemplified the worst aspects of Terence Mallick to the point of self parody, and while I don’t agree about Mallick’s film, such criticism is the perfect opposite-end-of-the-spectrum comparison point to Refn’s work here. For anyone who was already dubious of Refn being a filmmaker who favoured great style over great substance, Only God Forgives will be endlessly laughable from start to finish. Everyone speaks in hushed tones and faux poetic speeches where every word is so carefully chosen that no human being could have ever spoken them strung together in a real life sentence. The narrative itself seems almost exhaled in a sigh almost as if the film is somehow inconvenienced by even having the little story it does have. Maybe it would have worked better as a straight up art exhibit with the plot excised entirely.
There are plenty of reds and blues and artfully designed shadows and blood splatters, but actual emotions? Not a single one to be found except in fleeting moments involving Thomas, who for what it’s worth is really nailing the trailer trash mother routine pretty well and is the only person who injects any sort of liveliness into the drab that surrounds her. Having two completely blank, liefless characters like those played by Gosling and Pansringarm face off feels like two balloons filled with helium fighting in a breeze. It’s not that the characters are there to be likable or unlikable. They are merely there as vessels to create shadows and occasionally move pieces of the set into just the right place. It’s Kubrickian (the filmmaker that Refn has so desperately wanted to ape for years now), but without any attention paid to story or actually placing any sort of subtextual or metaphorical weight on any of the images.
As for Gosling, this is exactly the kind of film he should be running in the opposite direction from if he wants to maintain a longer career. It’s the same kind of quiet and brooding figure people have started to poke fun at him for playing. One could make a feature length version of “Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal” out of the material in this film. He’s a genuinely great actor capable of comedy, drama, movement, and action, so why he continues to put his talents into minimalist fare such as this with increasingly fewer dividends seems counterproductive.
Reassuringly, Refn can still rebound from this and produce great art and something truly cinematic, but Only God Forgives is too tossed off to feel like either. It looks great, but even the visuals are repetitive after a very short period of time. I guess they could be described as hypnotic, but without a story worth telling or an approach he hasn’t already taken before it’s not the kind of hypnosis that drags a viewer into a movie. It’s the kind that lulls them to sleep and forgets to wake them up.