In 2011, Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling teamed up to create Drive, a stylish, 80s-esque neo-noir masterpiece that was my film of 2011 and one of my favourite movies of all time. Now, Gosling and Refn are back for another collaboration, this time with the revenge thriller Only God Forgives. As I said above, I was a big fan of Drive, so I was looking forward to this film immensely. In fact, I can’t think of another film I was looking forward to more this year, except maybe The World’s End. It is for this reason that it hurts so much for me to write this, but Only God Forgives is, well, not terribly good.
Julian (Ryan Gosling), a drug dealing kingpin who operates out of Bangkok,has just discovered his brother has been murdered. Flying in from the US, Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), has come to collect her son’s body. That is, however, until she asks Julian to find her son’s killer and bring him to justice. And so, Julian goes on a quest to find the killer…at least I think that’s what happens.
The problem with Only God Forgives lies in it’s behind and in front of the camera talent. Now, again, I love Drive, so I know full well that both Refn and Gosling are extremely talented, but they both have their good and bad qualities. Refn has a knack for creating beautiful images, and using silence to immense effect. He can tell stories through visuals rather than words, which is an ability I always respect. On the other hand, he can slip into unbearable pretentiousness at times, and seems to forget that you still need a compelling narrative and interesting characters as well as pretty visuals. Gosling can create characters who are psychologically damaged, and can get across big emotions with minimal dialogue. However, he can, if not used correctly, be incredibly bland and dull, and deciding that the best way to get across a damaged person is to emote less than the shelf ornaments. Only God Forgives seems to be a hideous hybrid being of all the bad aspects of both Refn and Gosling mashed up into one, and the results are nothing short of disastrous.
The story, what little there is, is one of the first issues you notice; it couldn’t engage the audience if it got down on one knee and forced a ring on all the cinema-goers collective finger. The narrative feels confused and jumbled, never finding a place to settle down and just talk, or show some character development. The characters themselves are practically non-existent, save for one: Kristin Scott Thomas’ character, Crystal. She seems to be the only characterized person in this entire film, helped in no small part by Thomas’ wonderful acting. It’s quite a shame really. I like Ryan Gosling, but when he’s doing his stoic thing he does and then doesn’t have any material to back it up with, he starts to become annoying. This is especially evident when he’s put up against Kristin Scott Thomas, who steals every scene she’s in, and she really should have had a bigger part.
The visuals, something I praised Refn for earlier, are somewhat of a mixed bag here. While the style has been ramped up from Drive, the scale seems to have been lost. This is a film that feels like it should be massive, but ends up being really rather small. It just seems rather quaint, especially when the film tries to shock you with excessive and unflinching graphic violence. This probably would work to decent effect in a better film, but here it just seems out of place and over-the-top, and eventually just becomes laughable. Seriously, someone gets their eyes gouged out with chopsticks.
Only God Forgives may not be the worst film of this year (Movie 43 still owns that particular medal), but it probably is the most disappointing. The writing, acting, and direction all feel at odds with each other, like the story is trying to get out but the style of the visuals in hogging all the fun, meanwhile the acting is just left in the dust because it has nothing to work with. Boring, badly paced, and overall just pointless, Only God Forgives is, for lack of a better word, unforgivable.