When Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling teamed up to create 2011's Drive, that film's basic premise sounded as if it could have been that of a Jason Statham film: a stunt driver by day works as a getaway driver by night. In their second collaboration, Only God Forgives, the premise sounds like something Jean-Claude Van Damme might have made: an American who runs a boxing club in Bangkok tries to avenge his brother's murder. In both cases, Refn's vision elevates the material beyond the superficial and results in fascinating character studies, but audiences hoping Only God Forgives is a spiritual sequel to Drive will likely be left as dazed as Gosling's OGF character after taking a punch.
Only God Forgives
Writer/Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
Gosling plays Julian, an American expatriate who runs a Thai boxing club that's actually a front for a drug operation headed by his mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). When Julian's brother Billy murders a 16-year-old prostitute, a police officer named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) lets the father of the girl take his revenge on Billy, but then punishes him for allowing her to be put in such a dangerous position in the first place. The punishment? Having his hand cut off. Chang is a big fan of sharp objects, and as the story progresses, he uses all manner of them to slice, dice, and otherwise skewer various people who get in his way. Crystal blows into town and demands Julian get revenge for his brother's death, but Julian knows Billy was in the wrong and won't take vengeance. That's not enough for her, so she sets off a chain reaction leading to an escalating string of retaliations.
Refn cloaks much of the movie in a mixture of black shadows and dark red hues, a stark contrast to the neon pinks and blues of downtown Los Angeles in Drive. The film crawls along at a glacial pace, much of it unfolding as if caught in a dialogue-free trance of slow motion dolly shots spiked with vivid hallucinations. It builds to a faceoff between Julian and Chang which is one of the film's few satisfying moments (and the scene in which composer Cliff Martinez's score really shines), but even then, the film seems more interested with spitting in the face of convention than actually telling a coherent story. Gosling - who utters fewer lines here than he does in Drive, if you can believe it - managed to imbue the Driver with alternating senses of coiled tension and relaxed cool, but here his blank expressions don't enhance or illuminate Julian at all. He's a rudderless ship, drifting from one location to the next.
Kristin Scott Thomas, however, gives the film a blast of humor through her outrageous performance as Crystal, Julian's high strung mother. She's a racist drug lord with a filthy mouth and straight-up Oedipal vibes toward her son, and with her bleached blond hair and power-hungry attitude, she's essentially a modern-day Lannister. As much as the marketing might try to hype this movie as a straight revenge story, it's actually an often-uncomfortable mother/son piece that culminates with a head-scratching act which elicited nervous laughter from the L.A. Film Festival audience.
Though it's mesmerizing to watch (if for no other reason that for the excellent cinematography), Only God Forgives too frequently feels like Refn is being provocative for the sake of being provocative. It should be noted that he's the sole screenwriter on this project (which might explain why the story is much more visual than verbal), but it seems as if many of the film's most fascinating elements - like Chang, the murderous cop with a code of ethics - are passed over in favor of bizarrely sexual (but never explicit) back-and-forth dance between Gosling and Thomas. I can appreciate the artistic choice to let style prevail over substance, but when hyper-violence and cool shot compositions are the best thing a film has going for it, maybe it would be better served with another pass at the script before filming gets underway. Until next time...