Only God Forgives
It is only halfway through Only God Forgives and people are getting up to leave. An especially violent scene is playing out on the big screen up ahead and it seems to be proving too much for some. Some might ask how audiences could have been confused as to the nature of this film before seeing it when a quick delve into director Nicolas Winding Refn’s archive would reveal Bronson the tale of a deranged, fame-hungry criminal, the grimy drug-fuelled Pusher Trilogy and most recently the cool and decidedly old school Drive.
And indeed what can be found in Only God Forgives can be found in these critically acclaimed features also. Yet in this latest release Refn distills these trademark stylistic and thematic elements- violence, bold colour, and the left unsaid- to produce something somehow much more extreme, and unfortunately less successful.
The film is the story of a sketchy American family living in Bangkok. On these steamy, dirty streets they run a Thai boxing club as a cover up for the drug smuggling business that is the real source of their wealth. Central protagonist Julian (Ryan Gosling) is racked with guilt and a misplaced sense of honour after his crude mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) demands that he avenge the recent murder of his equally vile brother (Tom Burke), a fate that Julian quickly learns was well deserved.
This film crawls with the insidious- the oedipal mother-son relationship, the gutter industries of sex and drugs and the lowlives that populate them. Yet oddly, despite all this muck and a preoccupation with the elemental, visceral themes of sex and violence, what transpires is a film that is clinical and disengaged. Refn anatomises theses themes so purely in this case that they become devoid of all context and contribution, and seem detached even from the characters that enact them.
Still, this film certainly does not bring into question Refn and Gosling’s undoubtable grasp of cool. For the second time the pair create a sharp portrayal of a main character that oozes sex appeal and masculinity. Aside from Gosling, the film itself is aesthetically gorgeous. Each shot is calculated to perfection with exquisite balance and detail, and each frame seems to linger (a little too long perhaps) in appreciation of this success.
As in Drive, Gosling employs a brooding brand of cool, breaking his silence only occasionally to deliver one liners with effortless confidence: “wanna fight?” he asks the Thai police inspector straight-faced. Such dialogue is sparse, communicating instead using long, meaningful glances and trippy delves into Julian’s paranoid psyche.
Despite its unquestionable cool, the film and its moody glances becomes tiresome towards the end. There is too much left unsaid, too much focus on style as opposed to substance, leaving us with something of a shell of a story. Beautiful, cool and accomplished in both production and cast but lacking soul somehow. Perhaps this was intentional, the characters, the relationships they have and the world they inhabit are soulless, a point which Refn clearly wanted to reverberate throughout. In all however this feeling of things hidden in the shadows was frustrating. This is a film that needed a shake to break past the facade of cool and collected to reveal something more honest and substantial beneath.
Only God Forgives is due for general release on 19th July 2013.
by Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn