Film Review | Only God Forgives
Nicolas Winding Refn earned critical acclaim and a cult following with Drive (2011), so it’s no surprise that for many Only God Forgives (2013) – which reunites the director with his former leading man Ryan Gosling – is one of the most anticipated films of 2013. Premiering at Cannes earlier this year to divisive reviews, the hype has been tempered somewhat ahead of its UK release this week, and upon watching Refn’s ultra-arthouse thriller it’s clear that many of those critiques were well-founded.
Gosling plays Julian, the youngest of an American crime family living in Bangkok, and runs a Thai boxing club and smuggling ring with his psychopathic brother Billy (Tom Burke). When Billy is murdered, crime lord matriarch Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) demands that Julian take revenge on his brother’s killers. When he refuses, Crystal takes matters into her own hands, which puts her in the path of the equally ruthless lawman known as Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).
From a style perspective, Only God Forgives is a masterpiece; Refn has reteamed with Drive cinematographer Larry Smith and his aggressive visuals are a marvel to look at. Set mostly at night, even the film’s uglier locations look striking, with the backdrops often bathed in effervescent red and blue neon lights. When combined with Cliff Martinez’s well-utilised electronic score, Only God Forgives’ technical artistry is worthy of all the plaudits it will doubtless receive.
However, whilst Refn’s film is full of engrossing audial and visual delights, the narrative itself fails to engage. The plot is relatively simple, but almost no time is spent getting to know and invest in the characters. An over-abundance of slo-mo, wordless scenes do nothing to help explain what motivates the protagonists of this film to do what they do. For instance, why does Pansringarm’s Chang, a police officer, sing Karaoke songs after performing grisly murders? If there is a point to the weirdness, Refn seems confident that audiences will ‘get it’, but even upon reflection Only God Forgives perplexes. Most disappointingly, whilst there may be a lot of gruesome violence on display, there are precious few scenes that actually entertain.
Gosling may be the headliner of the film, but by no means is the film his. The popular actor does more aimless staring here than vampires in a Twilight movie. There is no denying his talent, but there is not much that he or even the Daniel Day-Lewis’s of this world can bring to such a dull character. On the plus side, Thomas revels in her role as Crystal (aka the Mom from Hell), delivering foul dialogue in frighteningly convincing manner.
When a film is 90 minutes long (closer to 80 if you don’t count the credits and if played at normal speed) and still feels like it drags, it’s clear that Only God Forgives suffers from a fatal lack of substance. One hopes that the next time Refn and Gosling team up, they are working with better material.