With the weight of expectation behind it, Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” was never going to be able to deliver the same neon blue jolt of surprise that thrilled audiences who saw “Drive.” And the anticipation for this film has certainly been high. in early stages, it looked a little like “Drive 2," reuniting Refn with star Ryan Gosling in a similarly taciturn role, and also with that reflective black and fizzing blue/red aesthetic that’s as heady and addictive as a drug to the director’s fans (among whom we number ourselves, of course). This is probably a good example of “be careful what you wish for," as “Only God Forgives” delivers what we might have thought we wanted but with diminishing returns: Refn’s trademark visual style is indulged to a dizzying degree (to an almost self-parodic extreme in the early stages) but is unmoored, lacking any kind of satisfying or coherent narrative throughline. Where “Drive” looked similarly amazing, it was in addition oddly affecting and poetic in its narrative arc; this film has the twisted, dreamlike, cool vibe in spades, but it makes only a late bid for our real engagement.
Refn has made a name for himself with spartan narratives, but there’s maybe even less story on offer here than before, and what there is feels kind of crammed into the last third of the film. Lack of story is itself not necessarily a problem – take “Valhalla Rising,” probably this writer’s personal favorite of Refn’s – but where ‘Rising’ paired its stripped-back plot with a stripped-back look and felt lean and economical and evocative as a result, here, with no truly relatable characters to compel us along between the occasional (glorious) fight or maiming scene, layers of style are lavished on in a threadbare plot a way that feels like they’re compensating for a lack. So people spend almost the first hour of this 90-minute movie gazing inscrutably offscreen at scenes that may or may not be a dream, or a premonition, or a thought, or a plan, when they aren’t walking around incredibly slowly, down ornately wallpapered corridors through dappled darkness.
And as minimalist as “Drive” was (sorry to compare the two again but it does feel like a just comparison), you felt you could at least read into the characters -- that tiny shred of redemptive hope as represented by the Carey Mulligan character gave a moral context to Gosling’s Driver that is nearly missing from Julian (unless you count the not-killing of a small child as a massive triumph of decency, which, in the bleak demi-monde Refn creates here, it kind of is).
The film starts, or rather the story chronologically begins, with the repugnant Billy (Tom Burke), the scion of an American family who run a Thai boxing club as cover for a drug operation, raping and killing a 16 year-old Thai prostitute. The Police Captain (Vithaya Pansringarm) who turns up has a uniquely peremptory attitude to the dispensation of justice, and locks the semi-catatonic, bloodstained Billy in a room with the girl’s father who duly beats him to death. Billy’s death prompts his brother Julian (Ryan Gosling) to seek revenge, but not hotheadedly enough for his mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who flies in from the States and assumes control of the family business as well as the business of avenging her elder (and clearly preferred) son’s death. The denouement is luridly oedipal, as more of the charming nature of that family’s dynamics are revealed, and as Crystal’s thirst for vengeance is eventually trumped only by her instinct for self-preservation.
Our overall disappointment aside, there are a lot of good elements. Kristin Scott Thomas, is wonderful as the snarling, acid anti-mother, and every one of her scenes crackles with the sheer electricity of her venality and corruption. But everything about her, from her image-upending look to her already-famous withering, foulmouthed language, to the way she can twitch on Julian’s line by offering him motherhood like a cookie, is so enlivening that we really miss her when she’s gone, and there’s not actually a huge amount of her (the dinner scene shown as a preview is probably her biggest moment).
Gosling feels oddly recessive here, as a more passive participant than we’re used to him being, but he should be congratulated for committing to the role of the near-mute Julian as he slowly, and gorily, overcomes his mommy issues, especially considering he doesn’t even have Driver’s way with violence: the film’s centerpiece fight scene sees him totally outmatched. While we’re on the subject, the fights, the maimings, and the deaths are all pretty great: from an exposed rib cage to a beautifully shot death scene against a set of white-draped windows, the balletic grace of Refn’s choreography and compositions comes into its own when violence is involved. The film’s very best point is its music: the score is so wonderful and electro-lyrical and buzzy and synthy (and even occasionally BRAAM-y) that were a case made for Refn’s visuals simply being an accompaniment to a 90-minute track by Cliff Martinez we probably wouldn’t argue too hard.
But what does it all mean, and what does it all amount to? We can read the police captain, in his outfit that clearly references that of a boxing match referee, as the God of the title, or, indeed, the Devil who Billy refers to in an early scene -- in this seedy limbo, there’s not a huge distinction between the two. In fact, if the devil’s in charge, doesn’t that pretty much make him God? And yes, the trajectory of the plot is such that it’s essentially a very belated coming-of-age tale (or rather a very, very late leaving-the-womb, cutting-the-cord tale) for Julian. But aside from these themes, there’s very little on offer here, and almost nothing in the way of emotional engagement. Refn has consistently delivered films in that have subverted our expectations, and has proven himself a master at stylistic self-reinvention, but this feels like the first time he’s gone back to any particular well. On paper, “Only God Forgives” is exactly the movie we might have wanted -- a re-visitation to the dark, fetishistically violent world of "Drive," with added local color and occasional, acid dialogue. Onscreen it’s that too: just that and no more. It makes us realize how we much we had come to subconsciously expect Refn to somehow change it up again and how silly of us that was.“Only God Forgives” is not the movie we hoped for, but it's probably the movie we asked for instead. [B]
This is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.