It’s only fair that Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling’s new collaboration should be called Only God Forgives, because if there’s any justice, the audience will not just not forgive but openly rebel. If Only God Forgives were only bad, that would be one thing. But it’s also pretty stupid, and not stupid in a “Hey, this is fun!” way. It’s stupid in a we-take-this-underbaked-idea-way-too-seriously way.
Though it’s unfair to compare Only God Forgives and Drive, the other, much better Refn/Gosling effort, the two movies have similar themes looping through them. For example, both feature leads that don’t speak much (Gosling). Both movies feature men who live by a code.
In Drive, the code is straightforward. The Driver (Gosling) breaks it, and Hell follows. In Only God Forgives, Julian (Gosling) has a code. Unfortunately, it’s a code that only he knows, because it’s so obtuse—and stupid, and takes itself way too seriously—that it never actually becomes clear. Being unclear, intentionally, isn’t so bad. Being intentionally opaque can provoke lots of late-night coffee or drinking discussions.
Unfortunately, the lack of clarity here is totally unintentional. Refn and Gosling want to tell a story, but seem to have forgotten how to do it. Or maybe they decided to just make a mood piece and forget the story. They definitely think their narrative is about something. They’re wrong.
Julian runs a boxing club in Thailand with his brother, Billy (Tom Burke). The club is a front for drug running. One night, Billy decides he wants to have sex with a 14-year-old girl. He can’t find one, so he settles for a 16-year-old girl whom he then rapes and kills. All the raping and killing mercifully happens off screen (a rare show of restraint for Refn).
What happens next is a series of artifice-drenched set pieces. A cop, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, who’s better than the material deserves), forces the girl’s father to kill Billy. Then Chang cuts off one of the father’s arms to let him know it’s not cool to sell his daughter into the sex trade. Then Julian tracks down the father. Then the father explains what happens. Then Julian lets him go. Then Julian’s mother shows up (Kristen Scott Thomas, who’s also better than the material deserves) to collect Billy’s body and get some retribution.
None of that’s really a spoiler, because it all happens in the interminable first 20 minutes. Julian is a totally passive character whose code is confused (or maybe he’s ambivalent but Gosling and Refn don’t know how to properly portray it). For example, he doesn’t like his mother much, but lets her ridicule him at a dinner. Then he threatens to choke a woman who calls him out for not standing up to his mother. “She’s still my mother,” he says. Yeah, OK.
The most frustrating thing about Only God Forgives is its assured direction of a muddled screenplay. If Refn knows what he wants, only he and—maybe—the cast do, too. It feels like they’re grasping at air.
There are some good moments. Anyone who likes their viscera on screen and in horrifying detail will appreciate Chang’s artistry with sharp objects. The scenes aren’t quite on the level of the shotgun-to-the-head at close range in Drive, but they’re satisfying in their own ways.
Then there’s Chang, who’s about as well developed as he can be given the formula into which he’s been dropped. Much of the credit goes to Pansringarm, who appears to have wandered in from a different movie and decided to play everything straight while the cool kids smoked cigarettes and compared berets.
Ultimately, Only God Forgives is a failed genre exercise. For stretches of controlled silence followed by bizarre dream-like sequences and shocking violence, it’s better to stick with David Lynch. Only God Forgives avoids a barf for the camera work alone.
ONLY GOD FORGIVES
“Written” and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
With Ryan Gosling, Kristen Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm