Before the release of “Drive”, I must admit that I knew very little about its director, Nicolas Winding Refn, and his films, with the only one I had seen being “Fear X”. However after being absolutely blown away by his 2011 film (I rated “Drive” as the best directed film I had seen of that year), I meticulously went back through his filmography and caught up with all of his other work (with the exception of his “Miss Marple” television movie) and for the majority, I was greatly impressed with what I saw. “Pusher”, “Bleeder” and “Valhalla Rising”, I all thought were spectacular, but even the titles I didn’t like as much (such as “Bronson”), it was easy to respect the level of filmmaking used to create these stories. It is very obvious that Refn has immense talent behind the camera and as his career has gone on, his visual style continues to be defined and impress. Because of all of this, “Only God Forgives” was the first time I had gone into a Refn film with massive expectations, especially considering he was reteaming with his leading man from “Drive”, Ryan Gosling. So did the film meet my expectations or disappoint terribly?
“Only God Forgives” is set in modern day Bangkok, and it is here where we meet Julian, an American drug dealer who is using his muay thai boxing school as a front to distribute his goods. After hearing the news that his older brother had just been murdered, he sets about righting that wrong by finding the person responsible and enacting his revenge. However when he understands the reasons on why his brother was killed and that a cop was involved also, he rethinks his ideas of revenge. That is until Crystal, his tough-as-nails mother, enters the scene, who demands that Julian do something and that is to bring the head of whoever murdered her first born son to her. She embarrasses and emasculates her son until she gets her way, but it soon becomes obvious that the policeman involved, Chang, is someone Julian does not want to mess with. Chang believes that he is some sort of Angel of Vengeance and he alone chooses who lives and dies for the crimes they have committed.
It is with great sadness that I have to report that I think “Only God Forgives” is Nicolas Winding Refn’s first dud film. There is just nothing to it. The revenge plot is paper thin and is as basic as it gets and to stretch out this minimal story for ninety minutes just does the film no favours at all. I am well aware that Refn believes he has created a story with a subtext involving God (Chang), the Devil (Crystal) and a man looking for forgiveness for his past sins (Julian), but really there isn’t enough meat on the bone here to give that subtext any weight. What I mean by this is this may be exactly what Refn wanted to get across with “Only God Forgives” but he has failed to do so successfully. Personally, I think a lot of this film has been done with the intent to shock and nothing more (as if he thinks pushing the boundaries here gives the film extra gravitas), especially with the violence and particularly Crystal’s dialogue. Admirers of the film would argue that this dialogue helps define the characters but personally I found it cringe-worthy and again, was only used to shock. The film is shallow and really has nothing to say, and dare I say it, is pretentious.
It is very apparent that the bond forged between director and star was very strong during the making of “Drive” because this loyalty to Refn is the only reason I can think of for why Ryan Gosling would accept such a nothing role with which he is given here with Julian. The character is so underwritten, there is literally no depth to him, what you see on the surface is all there is; and unfortunately Gosling has been unable to instill anything further into the character to flesh him out. As much of a fan of Gosling as I am, he really is quite poor here. It is now very well known that he only has seventeen lines of dialogue in “Only God Forgives” with the rest of his screentime consisting of him brooding or blankly staring into dead space. While this minimalism worked brilliantly for his character in “Drive”, it just does not work here. The reason why is in “Drive” it was easy to feel that there was a lot going on behind the eyes of the unnamed driver; he was fighting the urges to reveal his violent self, whereas with Julian in “Only God Forgives”, it just looks like he wants to have a nap. There just is no access into Julian and what he is feeling at all and this is really the main problem with the film. Refn hasn’t invested anything in Julian even though he is meant to forward the plot. He is a blank page; we know very little about the guy or what motivates him, and because of this it makes it very hard to care about him and what he does. Also the fact that Julian’s brother was an arsehole to the extreme; it gives the audience another reason to care little for Julian’s quest.
While it is great to see Kristin Scott Thomas in a role unlike any she has played before (both physically and mentally), unfortunately her character Crystal is so unlikable and unbelievable, that you cannot help but feel her talents have been wasted here. Her performance is so broad and totally over-the-top (no doubt directed that way by Refn) that she never once feels like a real person. Even her love towards her murdered first born son just feels false; she is just so emotionally cold. Worst of all is the fact that the primary function of the Crystal character is to shock or disturb the audience. The dialogue she sprouts at a dinner scene with Julian and his “girlfriend” is laughable and utterly disgusting. I will give props though to her look in the film. Kristin Scott Thomas is almost unrecognizable here with her bleach blonde hair and provocative wardrobe.
I have read a lot of reviews for “Only God Forgives” applauding the amazing performance from Vithaya Pansringarm as the “Angel of Vengeance” Chang, and while he probably does give the best performance in the film (it was a wise move to let the character speak his native tongue), to me it was nothing special. There was something just a little flat with his performance, I do not know how to explain it, but it was a little one note for me. However I thought he handled himself brilliantly in the fight scene with Ryan Gosling and really took hold of the role through his physicality here. Talking about this scene, almost all of the trailers for “Only God Forgives” end with Gosling’s line “Wanna fight?”, indicating that the film is all leading to the confrontation between these two men, [spoiler alert] so I thought it was hilarious that when the two did end up fighting that Julian didn’t even land a single punch. [End of spoiler]
On the positive side of things, “Only God Forgives” looks amazing. The hyper-stylized world created by Refn and cinematographer Larry Smith is gorgeous to look at, but as good as it is, I feel that it has been actually overdone a little. The overuse of the colours red and yellow gets a bit much after awhile, especially when we finally get to see some scenes without them used and we witness just how beautiful the scenes are without them (the scenes with Crystal in her pink top immediately pop into my mind). The camerawork and framing of shots is all done expertly though, with slow push-ins up a hallway being a regular shot, that creates amazing atmosphere in the film. Again, the influence of David Lynch is felt, particularly during these hallway shots or the shots of the darkened doorway leading to who knows where. It is very Lynchian without feeling derivative. The other great asset “Only God Forgives” has is its sensational score from Cliff Martinez (also returning from “Drive”). In fact, I would argue that the music is the strongest aspect of the film altogether particularly in creating the atmosphere of dread that Refn is going for, and the use of Thai pop songs is both brilliant and disarming.
Overall, I have to say that “Only God Forgives” is a pretty shallow film. It is all style and no substance, and doesn’t appear to have anything to say at all. Its revenge plot is paper thin, and the subtext that Refn has inserted has little to no gravitas to have an effect at all. In context with the rest of Refn’s filmography, “Only God Forgives” is a very minor entry, but the film it resembles most is his 2009 film “Valhalla Rising” (which is interesting as he was originally going to make “Only God Forgives” after that film before he committed to “Drive” instead), although it has none of that film’s brilliance. Anyone going in expecting this to be “Drive 2” had best check their expectations at the door because this is the opposite of what you are getting. While both the look and music of the film are great, “Only God Forgives” ultimately is a grand disappointment and a shallow exercise in filmmaking.