Only God Forgives may end up as the most divisive film of the summer, with it receiving a lot of praise in some quarters and abject hatred in others. It was booed at the Cannes Film Festival, but getting booed at Cannes is practically a rite of passage for films at this point. I mostly watched the film with the same blank expression that Ryan Gosling was staring back at me with. It’s a hot mess of a film, beautiful to look at but with nothing going on between the ears. It’s Blue Steel.
Having enjoyed Drive, a flawed but ultimately successful experience in style over substance from the same acting/directing team of Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn, I wanted to give Only God Forgives the benefit of the doubt. Despite feeling bored in the early going of scene after scene of Gosling staring into nothing, I wanted to give it time to establish itself at which point I assumed it would really get going. Unfortunately by the time it “got going” I was giggling in the theatre at the shallow ridiculousness on the screen. Drive may have prioritised style over substance, but in Only God Forgives style hacks substance’s arms off with a dha. In slow motion. Then sings a karaoke song.
The film is set in Thailand where Gosling and his brother operate a boxing club that serves as a front for the family drug business. The brother is a complete psychopath who commits a brutal act of murder. This prompts a brutal act of murder, which prompts a brutal act of violence, which leads to a brutal act of murder, which leads to a brutal act of murder, followed by a brutal attempt at murder which is retaliated by a brutal act of torture then murder, and so on and so on and so on and revenge and swords being whipped out of nowhere like a Loony Tunes mallet and so on. The most entertaining part of the film was the aforementioned torture scene. I nearly bit my tongue off trying to avoid laughing as the bad detective just kept finding things around the room to stick in that English guy. Everyone in the film is emotionless, most are psychopaths who only care about revenge and there is nobody to root for, which isn’t exactly a necessity in a film but it ensures Only God Forgives was just a joyless experience, an attempt at David Lynch style directing but without Lynch's...I'm trying to think of a better word than heart, but at least there is more emotion in a film like Blue Velvet than you’re ever going to see here.
It should exist purely to be shown to students of directing and cinematography, as it looks great, sounds great and creates a strong atmosphere. Refn remains skilled at cutting the art house style out briefly for short and sweet naturalistic scenes that relieve the tension. The best scene in the film is a no-frills beat down of Gosling and not just because it felt like personal gratification for his empty performance. Unfortunately all the carefully established atmosphere led to nothing and most of the time I ended up disengaged while waiting for something, anything to happen. The violence and gore eventually went past uncomfortable into being amusing. I understand that film is a visual medium but if those visuals aren't in service of a narrative than what's the point?
Like Drive it has a disjointed, dreamlike vibe, but at least that film attempted to ground itself with actual character relationships, here the relationships are either too over the top or non-existent to be engaging. Gosling takes his vacant schtick too far and his character is completely lacking in agency, with little reason to do the very little he does beyond "oh he's a psycho cos he is". The prostitute played by Yayaying Rhatha Phongam was a complete non-character, existing only as a prop for Gosling to react to, to provide tiny slithers of insight into his character’s fragile state of mind. Considering the blunt Oedipal subtext being key to the film you'd think they would cast the mother better as Kirsten Scott Thomas was far too campy. She feels like she’s just stormed in from another movie, specifically Mommie Dearest. From what I’ve been told Refn cut huge amounts out of the script, and while it mostly does the film a disservice I was more than grateful for it with her character, as every word out of her mouth is stupider than the last one. The corrupt Thai detective character played by Vithaya Pansringarm initially seems interesting and he is probably the best actor in the film, but eventually it becomes clear that the film has nothing in particular to say about him and he’s just another character doing things in slow motion.
My initial reaction when the credits began to roll was a big “fuck you” and a rating of what a load of bollocks/10 but I would actually recommend seeing it for yourself. Because you have to see this shit. You have to see the audacity of the people involved to put on such a jittery non-story, to muck about in excess after the goodwill afforded to them by Drive. Or maybe you actually will like it, like I said it's divisive. Maybe you’ll genuinely enjoy it purely as a visual experience. As aforementioned it would make a valuable educational tool for aspiring filmmakers, as Refn and cinematographer Larry Smith are skilled in staging scenes, framing their actors and make striking use of colour in the film. The score is good. Maybe you’ll get more out of the story than I did. Maybe you just like looking at Ryan Gosling. More power to you. But for me Only God Forgives was a nasty and ludicrous film that blew up all of Drive’s vices with little to redeem it. Less Drive 2 and more Too Drive.
And Ryan Gosling looks just like Plank from Ed, Edd and Eddy. That cannot be denied.