Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristen Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansingarm, Rhatha Phongam
Plot: A violent cop (Pansingarm) murders Julian’s brother, which leads to a confrontation between the two of them, Julian (Gosling) being manipulated by his domineering mother (Scott Thomas).
I know it is a little premature to judge a director’s status after watching just one of his films, but ‘Drive’ in 2011 was so stylish, so riveting, so beautiful, that I couldn’t help but predict big things for the near future. It seems silly in retrospect, but I seriously was considering him for the next Quentin Tarantino. And then ‘Only God Forgives’ was released and killed my respect for the director faster than a bullet to the skull.
The premise could fool you into thinking that ‘Only God Forgives’ is a sure hit. Two brothers own an underground fighting ring in Bangkok. The eldest murders a young girl and gets himself killed by a maverick cop with a god complex. The mother of the two sons arrives in Bangkok and bullies Ryan Gosling into avenging his brother’s death by launching a war on the police force. We have this reluctant hero figure and a bloody war. If Refn played his cards right, this could be a love letter to the great mafia films of old. Sadly, Refn was playing a completely different card game to everyone else. Dominos, maybe…
The thing with ‘Drive’ is that it was a little art-house, but not distractingly so. It was still a coherent movie, it was just different from anything we’ve seen before. I am worried that Refn has figured himself for the kind of director we go to see ‘weird’, because ‘Only God Forgives’ goes full throttle with the idea. It is just a bunch of art-house shots, one after the other, but no one is ever quite sure on the context of these sequences. It seems weird for weird’s sake. We have scenes of Vithaya Pansingarm singing karaoke after a brutal murder, quickly cutting to Ryan Gosling watching a girl masturbating for five minutes, while he imagines his hands being cut off. Nothing is ever explained, at least not well enough, and we are just watching these bizarre scenes, unsure if a practical joke is being played. If nothing else, I guess stoners will love this film.
There are no character arcs either; we are just made to assume the backstories of all of these characters. The mother is constantly telling us how the dead brother was an honourable, successful figure, but we only ever see the side of him that rapes and murders an underage girl. It is never explained why the cop murders criminals rather than arresting them (I had to Wikipedia the ‘god complex’ piece of exposition). Ryan Gosling’s character is haunted long before he learns his brother is dead and we are given a flimsy reason why in the last half hour of the film. The love interest is nothing compared to the fantastic Carey Mulligan in ‘Drive’. There is no slow build up that really makes you root for these two to ride off into the sunset together. We are just treating to sexual montages that might be a dream and then Julian begins treating her like shit. Yet she is still present for the final fight. I know that exposition has killed off a few potentially good films this summer, but we still need at least some of it.
Oh and for those holding out for the final fight, don’t bother. There is one fight, but it is soon over and Refn seems far too in love with the setting than the actual characters. It tries to be some higher form of cinema, but in truth, it just kills the one factor that could have been a redeeming feature of this film. It also hints that there will be a second fight, but that never happens. Again, Refn goes for a weird and ‘meaningful’ ending that just has people rolling their eyes and laughing. The one other reason to watch this film is Kristen Scott Thomas. She has some fantastic dialogue here. The best moment of the film is where Julian tells her that his brother raped and murdered a young girl and she coolly replies: “I am sure he had his reasons.” Moments like these prove that Refn can write a script, but here he prefers silences, wasting what could have been some good, film-saving, scenes.
Final verdict: A good point? Well… it’s only 90 minutes long.