I imagine there were many at Cannes who expected Nicolas Winding Refn’s return after Drive to deliver similarly artful, concise storytelling, but I feel he’s always had an untapped potential as a capable substitute for typical summer action filmmaking. Bronson and Drive certainly represented a his skills being applied to a more prestige template, an odd statement given the nasty violence on display in both. Though Only God Forgives continues that sharp dialectic with onscreen violence, it bears closer resemblance to his viking age thriller Valhalla Rising, another summer debut. Again, the action and violence isn’t filtered through the deliberate framework of climactic set-pieces, by far this summer’s most increasingly dull trope. To be honest, it would be surprising of Refn not to run rampant with stylistic urges after dialing those tastes into a strict propulsive narrative structure such as Drive.
So if you felt Drive was light on plot and dialogue, you’ll be amazed by how much Refn is able to make out of an even thinner plot. To say that this is half the film its predecessor was is as far as I’ll drag the comparisons between these two works, for fear of as ill comparison as I made between Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love. That reference isn’t entirely out of left field, as Only God Forgives elaborates on the dialogue of Drive in the same way as Kiarostami’s films respectively do. Whereas Kiarostami continued his investigation of implicitly romantic relationships, Refn continues to build up his ongoing statement on violence. Just as before, it’s hard to know if he’s drawing a definitive line against it, because he has such fun creating it onscreen.
To describe what little plot there is, Ryan Gosling teams up with Refn again as Julian, an American running a Thai boxing ring as a front for him and his brother’s drug operation. When Julian’s brother is murdered by a symbolic police lieutenant named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, who’s even less talkative than Gosling, if you don’t count his abrupt karaoke breaks), ruthless vengeance is ordered by his dominatrix mobster mommy Crystal, played with seething verbal venom by Kristin Scott Thomas. To say that complications ensue is to imply that any of this is particularly complicated. Murder and retaliation is dished out as expected from there, but a cunning plot should not be the reason you check into a Nicolas Winding Refn joint.
Onscreen violence rarely makes me truly squeamish, but Refn is no strange to the power of the literal gut image, and there are plenty here to make Drive look evasive by comparison. While it’s hard not to think that Julian’s brother got what he deserved for his sick crime, the image of his own pulpy demise is enough to enforce Refn’s ongoing dialogue on the repercussions of violence. One could say it’s Only God Forgives‘ sole reason for existence, as a harsh criticism of the violence that one such act relentlessly ensues. Regrettably you may be wishing the film itself were as relentless as the havoc caused throughout.
To say that Gosling is timid in comparison to his already quiet work in Drive is an understatement. It’s difficult to near impossible to even slightly assume what’s stewing beneath the scruffier mug of Julian, which is to say there may be nothing going on in his head at all. Julian is nowhere near the do-what-you-gotta-do badass of the Driver, his character existing in response to whomever else is onscreen. When put alongside women like verbally abusive Crystal or carefully understanding prostitute Mai (Ratha Phongam), he acts in submission to their motherly affection. When put against his brothers’ supposed killer, he reacts with mercy. When put against his real killer, he acts time and again with desperation. If Driver was a real human being and a real hero, Julian is the faux model of both, and he knows it.
The film’s symbolic properties also seem to stop and end there, with emphasis being put rather overtly on the importance of hands, fists and quite apparently crotches. It’s evident that Julian’s own manhood is in question, at least from his disappointed mothers’ point of view. A line on how godlike brother Billy’s cock was compared to Julian, coming from their mother no less, does not go to waste. One wants for deeper fetishistic emphasis to be put upon the mother as a symbolically sexual presence in any child’s life, but Refn largely leaves the blanks of Crystal’s relationship to be filled in by Kristin Scott Thomas’ universally emasculating, show-stealing performance. When she “confesses” Julian’s sordid history with her family late on in the film, exactly how much of what she says is true is left thankfully up to the audience, one of the few kinky puzzles we’re left happy to solve for ourselves.
Much of the film’s subtext is put front-and-center by Larry Smith’s frigidly frank lensing, but conversely heated colour palette. I struggle to remember another film that made hot red and yellow into such cold tones. The film’s uber-neon production design proves its most fascinating detail of craft, Julian’s private sanctum becoming one of the more obvious religious metaphors in the film. Perhaps the deepest texture to Julian’s character is the respect for the fight, though that comes completely by design, rather than through Gosling’s stirred but vacant performance. The other most obvious bit of tucked religious subtext comes naturally by way of violence, with one of the film’s latest victim hunching in near angelic pose with an ethereal sheet hanging over them.
There’s certainly plenty to extract from Only God Forgives‘ design, but it becomes clear that this exists most purely as a stylistic exercise for Refn. The experience of watching it is undeniably engaging, with Cliff Matinez’s darker electro-beat/heavy melodrama score pulsating like the lights on the streets of Bangkok. You’ll often be watching in awe of its beauty, a testament to the rich style Refn has built as his signature. You might even get to the bottom of Lt. Chang’s obscure karaoke breaks. By the end, though, you may be speculating its visual subtext from an emotional distance. Still, it’s amongst the more substantial popcorn thrillers you’re likely to witness this summer.
Bottom Line: Only God Forgives is as visually sumptuous as you expect, but its surface seduction doesn’t cover up a vacant emotional core.