Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Runtime: 90 minutes
If we're to believe the title of Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn's follow up to Drive, then the writer/director better get on his knees and start praying. Odds are, he won't find much forgiveness outside of the realm of the divine and supernatural. Re-teaming with newfound alter ego Ryan Gosling, Refn has fashioned a spiritual successor to his last film, with all of the traces of character development completely excised. The result is a numbing effort, one that explains and justifies the jeers that greeted the film upon its Cannes premiere in May.
Refn's work has always concerned violence, but even compared strictly to Drive, the gulf in quality between his last two films is mind-boggling. Drive took a paper thin story and actually made something of its long glances and limited dialogue. Gosling's nameless driver was pushed to commit brutal acts of violence, yet in doing so he discovered something about himself: that, try as might, brutality was his only means of expression. The most telling shot in that film comes after he saves Carey Mulligan's character by taking down an assassin in an elevator. As Mulligan steps out and looks at Gosling, he can only remain frozen over the fresh corpse. His face is stoic, yet tearful, and you know that the best he can do to express his care for Mulligan and her child is by succumbing to brute protective force.
In Only God Forgives, there isn't even a trace of a thematic thread to the characters or violence on display. The motivation for nearly every action is revenge and retaliation, and all of the neon-lit hallways and stone-faced stares in the world can't elevate the material beyond that. Consider Refn's newest film what Drive would have been had someone cut out the opening half hour, and left the film as nothing more than a blank and bloody slate.
Even the basic story, about boxing manager/drug smuggler named Julian (Gosling) seeking revenge for his dead brother Billy (Tom Burke) gets lost in Refn's stylistic indulgences. Worse, the film barely gives enough breathing room to its MVP: Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), Julian and Billy's bleached blonde dragon lady of a mother. The role is juicy and campy, yet outside of a bizarrely funny dinner scene, Crystal comes up short from the writing perspective.
Though at least Scott Thomas, in a role unlike anything she's ever done, holds your attention with all of her icy glares and snarled lines. Gosling, who can work wonders with limited dialogue and internal projection, is little more than a hunky action figure to be used and (very heavily) abused. Crystal may force Julian to seek revenge on Julian's killer (a blade-wielding ex-cop played by Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm), but even when Julian accepts the mission, the narrative feels stillborn. Without a more informative opening to provide some reason to engage with the material, Only God Forgives is frustrating and boring, when it could have been gripping and hypnotic.
With the script so wafer thin, even Refn's technical collaborators can't provide any truly engaging moments. Cinematographer Larry Smith, who knows how to capture glowing shades of color and light (ex: Eyes Wide Shut), is left with little to work with other than drenching hallways and rooms in neon. On the other hand, Cliff Martinez's score, barring one fantastic track, goes over-the-top to create atmosphere. Utilizing a series of simple notes, Martinez's cranks out compositions that sound like rejects from The Shining. The soft electronic notes from Drive were a perfect compliment to the images. This time, however, the effect is jarring (and not intentionally, so it would seem), with blaring, ominous notes flooding the scene to no effect whatsoever.
The biggest offender of the film, however, has to be the sense of pretension behind some of the imagery. A series of dream and fantasy sequences are scattered across the film, yet the cumulative effect is mostly shrug-inducing. If Refn was trying to go for some sort of unsettling Lynchian surrealism, he miscalculated quite badly. The same is much to true of the film as a whole. For all of Drive's arty flourishes and minimalistic dialogue, there was some semblance of a beating heart running underneath it all. By contrast, Only God Forgives, despite the slit throats and stab wounds, is little more than a bloodless bore.