Drive was a fairly polarizing movie. Thanks to a dishonest advertising campaign many viewers walked into the cinema expecting a stylish action thriller; what they got instead was a slow-burning mood piece about a nameless, morally ambiguous vigilante who engages in acts of stomach-churning violence. A lot of people hated it. A lot of other people (myself included) loved it. A smaller but still disappointingly large group of people didn’t seem to realize that you weren’t supposed to like the Driver, leading to a modest uptick in the sale of white jackets with scorpions on them. Director Nicholas Winding-Refn’s followup, Only God Forgives, was promoted as a stylish action thriller but instead turns out to be a slow-burning mood piece about a morally ambiguous vigilante who engages in acts of stomach-churning violence. Can neon 80s-flavored lightning strike twice?
Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his brother operate a Muay Thai gym in Bangkok that’s actually a front for a drug ring. One day Julian’s brother ambles into a brothel and monotonously requests a fourteen year old girl to have sex with. After being rebuffed he tracks down and murders the 16 year old daughter of the brothel owner and waits serenely in her blood-stained room for the cops to arrive. Unfortunately for him he attracts the attention of Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a violent renegade super-cop with the apparent ability to produce swords from thin air. Julian’s criminal empress mother arrives in town and orders Julian to avenge his brother’s death, a task he doesn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about. Before long a series of escalating revenge killings plunge him into a nightmarish underworld that may or may not be entirely real.
Only God Forgives is an art movie. I know this because it spends most of its run-time announcing the fact in the most ham-fisted and shallow way possible. Someone evidently told Nicholas Winding-Refn that art movies are slow and serious, and so he has his actors drift languidly across the screen as if underwater and wear a permanent expression of stern disapproval, suggesting that there is a dog peeing on a carpet just off-camera in every scene. Having perfected the craft of arthouse cinema nirvana he then flipped through IMDB comments pages to find movies that people who don’t watch a lot of films consider pretentious and ripped them off. No real attempt is made to either disguise these inspirations or mesh them together into a unified whole, so we get a David Lynchian traipse through surreal eerie dreamscapes, then a Quentin Tarantino-esque taut verbal stand-off, then No Country For Old Men-ish visual and auditory sparsity. It gives the impression that the movie can’t make up its mind about what it wants to be and ends up feeling like nothing in particular except a pale imitation of better films.
All of this cinematic faffery is in service to trite and simplistic Freudian notions of masculinity and impotence delivered in a manner so thuddingly obvious I had worked out exactly what the movie was trying to say within the first fifteen minutes. No doubt there are hidden depths to Only God Forgives that I’m not seeing. I’m sure a torture scene being set in a club full of women who have been ordered to keep their eyes closed has some deep thematic meaning, but I can’t say I’m particularly arsed to figure it out. That just leaves a revenge thriller that takes frequent breaks so Ryan Gosling can stare at his fists or glare at the off-screen dog some more, populated by paper-thin characters that we’re given no reason to care about.
Julian himself is a complete non-entity, a spineless inert character brought (barely) to life by an uncharacteristically wooden performance from Gosling. It’s been suggested that Julian’s pathetic nature may have been intended as a dig at audiences who didn’t realize they weren’t supposed to like the protagonist of Drive- if so then well done, we have all been thoroughly trolled. I hope it was worth sabotaging the movie for that. Chang is more interesting, largely due to a strong performance from Pansringarm, who seems to be the only person in the film capable of pulling off the permanent death-glare he’s been saddled with naturally, but his stoic angel of vengeance routine quickly loses its impact after the first few times you see it leaving us with an emotionless killing machine whose sheer level of sadism ends up making him look worse than many of the people he hunts down over the course of the movie. By far the most interesting character- and really, the best part of the movie- is Julian’s grimy, thoroughly unpleasent mother, whose scenes show off the Tarantino influences in a particularly entertaining way. She’s morally reprehensible to the extreme, virulently racist and has a disturbing quasi-oedipal relationship with her sons, but she’s also the only character in the film who feels like she has any personality at all, probably because she’s the only one who gets to display any emotions besides pent-up rage or penis-depression. There’s an awful lot of penis-depression in this movie, with Gosling spending a long time fantasizing about beating up Thai people and sleeping with prostitutes because his dick-fists aren’t working properly.
If the characters don’t enthrall you (they wont) then at least the environs they drift lifelessly through will give you something interesting to look at. This is a spectacularly good looking film, with a Kubrickian eye for strong colour choices and framing that results in a lot of absolutely sublime images. Winding-Refn has a lot of fun splashing neon lighting all over the place and generally laying on the same 80s grindhouse aesthetic he used in Drive, to generally attractive results. If you’re just looking for style and don’t care about how wafer-thin and tedious the substance behind it is, consider giving Only God Forgives a look.
Is this movie absolutely terrible? No. The basic structure of the story is perfectly decent and the last third or so drops the arty nonsense in favour of telling a straight revenge story, while simultaneously keeping the off-kilter dreaminess of the preceding hour intact. The movie improves immeasurably at this point, with some genuinely nail-biting set pieces and a character reversal that’s been done too many times before to be surprising but which still manages to entertain. There’s a good movie in here somewhere; occasionally it rises to the surface enough to be glimpsed, such as in Chang and Julian’s stylish throw-down late in the movie, but it’s just too dis-jointed and confused to ever really achieve its full potential.
I wanted to like Only God Forgives, but in the end I can’t characterize it as anything other than a huge misfire on the part of an undeniably talented director. It’s a hollow shell of a movie, an art film that spends so much time putting on the outward trappings of art cinema that it never really established an identity of its own, a revenge thriller with far too little plot or character development to be engaging, a visual metaphor with nothing particularly interesting to say.