Writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” is the darkest, angriest, most lurid thriller since Refn’s last film, 2011’s “Drive.” If “Drive” was a perfect combination of art-house quirkiness and mainstream appeal (an art-house action film for everyone), then “Only God Forgives” is the exact opposite: it’s a film only for the initiated. If you didn’t like “Drive,” you probably – definitely – won’t like this film. If you liked “Drive,” well…you still might not like this film.
And you wouldn’t be alone. “Only God Forgives” sharply divided critics and audiences when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May. Some declared it a masterpiece. Most were unforgiving; “pretentious”, “stupid”, “suffocating” and “unwatchable” were among their complaints. Some even called it one of the worst movies ever made.
I’m somewhere in the middle. “Only God Forgives” isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s not a catastrophe, either. This film is still incredibly pretentious and self-indulgent, as well as somewhat boring, which is the last thing I expected it to be. But it’s also too beautifully shot and too ambitious to be labeled as “one of the worst movies ever made”. Even though I don’t like the film, and can’t wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, I still admire Refn’s attempt to make something darker and more intelligent than your average boilerplate thriller.
Ryan Gosling, who also starred in “Drive,” plays a very similar character here. He plays Julian, a near-mute, low-level gangster who runs a Bangkok boxing club that’s a front for his drug trade. When his brother (played by Tom Burke) is killed after he rapes and kills a teenage prostitute, Julian is asked by his psychotic mother (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) to kill the people who are responsible for his brother’s death. Among those responsible is Chang (played by Vithaya Pansringarm), a retired Thai policeman who dishes out cruel punishment and retribution as if he’s God himself.
It all looks good on paper, but Refn is using the same tricks he used in “Drive” – minimal dialogue, graphic violence, heavy use of score – and they just don’t work well here. “Only God Forgives” sometimes almost feels like a parody of “Drive.” Once again, Gosling is playing a quiet, brooding, introspective character, but while that worked pretty well in “Drive,” here his performance is incredibly silly and distracting. That’s not his fault though; he literally has nothing to work with here. The same could be said for Kristin Scott Thomas’s incredibly over-the-top performance as Julian’s foul-mouthed mother.
Ultimately, this film is a prime example of style of substance. Yes, the style is impeccable, but, unfortunately, this film has nothing more than a couple of somewhat interesting ideas (which I can’t get into without giving away spoilers) and some uncomfortable scenes of graphic violence.