It is almost impossible to start off this review without mentioning two things; Nicholas Winding Refn’s cinematic impact, captivating audience global with “Drive” (2009), and of course the continuity of Ryan Gosling’s on-screen success. So of course fans were looking forward to what the two can come up with next in Only God Forgives; a game of who blinks first, who can create the most tension using strictly facial expressions, in fact Refn’s latest vision is so overly pretentious, you just wonder if his ambition to match that of Drive led to sleepless nights, resulting in a very average movie.
Based in the slums of Bangkok, prostitutes and drugs are extremely rife and Julian’s Thai boxing club is at the centre of it all. The club is a smokescreen to hide a family run drug operation in which Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs alongside his brother Billy (Tom Burke). We are not forced to indulge in Billy’s psychotic persona for too long as he is hacked to pieces in a brothel. The savage murder sees the involvement of Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) whose deranged character has clearly rubbed off Julian, resulting in a Norman Bates style relationship
The Bangkok area is patrolled, tortured and extremely feared by the corrupt Chan (Vithaya Pansringarm); a sergeant of the police who murders his victims in a ferocious way.
On one hand we have Crystal who seeks revenge for her son’s death, and then we have Julian who continues to mourn in the creepiest ways possible as he slowly patrols the darkly red corridors of a brothel, aimlessly looking at the walls. Julian spends his nights fantasising about sexual affection, and drifting in and out of the possibility of a showdown with the murderous Chang.
As expected, Refn hits us with a retro themed sound bite that was so significant in Drive. However, while the stage is set in the gritty visuals of Bangkok, Only God forgives fails to provide an efficient story to back up the design. While the plot is supposed to focus on vengeance, the lack of dialogue from the apparent protagonist (Gosling) is surprising as the director goes on to exaggerate his “knack” of creating tension with facial expressions in every scene. And while Julian and Chang do this very well when they match up, the Dracula style piano tune and the consistent thump of a loud drum really creates the atmospheric tempo as its consistent noise becomes a substitute for any potential dialogue.
The movie survives on small talk, strange looks, slow-motion and unnecessary violence. While Refn expressed his grotesque side in Drive previously, he also had characters to back it up. Sure, we can look at Gosling’s on-screen presence all day but the man lacked any soul this time around. Same goes for the small cast involved who spent most of the time advertising stand-stills.
The Concept of the movie is recognisable coming from Refn's point of view. It is visually satisfying with the sound similar to that of Drive. The "artsy fartsy" clan may claim to acknowledge a sense of enjoyment from Refn's latest but what seemed obvious to me was that Only God Forgives sounds great, it looks pretty slick and while some sequences may be entertainingly weird, it is very far from wonderful.
Only God Forgives - Trailer