Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn – France/Denmark) 90 minutes
Nicolas Winding Refn, long a purveyor of slick action movies for art house audiences, reunites with Ryan Gosling after the success that was Drive. This time the setting is Thailand and Gosling plays Julian, the seemingly reluctant son of an American crime family, who is being urged by his psychotic mother (a surprisingly effective Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge the death of his older brother. (The brother had it coming to him, something which gives Julian some pause). The man they are looking for is police chief Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), an impassive taciturn killer who swings a mean krabi sword, and who is unlikely to go quietly.
Gosling is a man who will always be able to rely upon the goodwill of the world’s womenfolk; unfortunately he has been less well served by his agent and the world’s casting directors. Only a small handful of the films he has appeared in have been any good and there have been a great many duffers. Only God Forgives falls somewhere between those two stools but it is a disappointment and doesn’t really do justice to Gosling, who is a decent actor. He reprises his puppy-dog Steve McQueen silent type from Drive and it falls a bit flat as he is forced to wander aimlessly around a film that is far more attentive to look than to plot. Gosling is not so inexpressive as he first appears but the silent role doesn’t always work (I shudder to think how he will turn out in the next Terrence Malick, which he has just finished shooting).
Where Only God Forgives excels is in atmosphere and with its visual palette; Refn is one of the greatest filmers of the night going and some of his sequences are wonderfully mounted. But whereas Drive pared its story of an unlikely tough-guy loner down to a sharp, clean fable, his new film is a mess that overplays its hand far too often. Refn is a little too in love with the photogenic locations he found in Bangkok and he can’t resist framing everything with exquisite taste – there is one particular shot of Scott Thomas against a grilled window that is annoyingly intrusive, if geometrically beautiful. The director’s hand is also far too apparent in a host of characters that are poorly written and barely credible (true, the film is not meant to be overly realistic but you still need a bit of credibility to hook the viewer). There are some scenes too which are just woefully incompetent, such as when Julian, for reasons best known to himself, decides to introduce his hooker girlfriend to his harridan of a mother.
The violence in the film is also a bit hard to take, even by Refn’s standards, and there is a bit too much sadistic pleasure in its portrayal. Refn does his best to suffuse the film with local atmosphere, going so far as to have the opening credits in Thai, but the only Thais that interest him are hookers and viciously venal cops. I don’t wish to throw the ‘racist’ tag about but Refn’s portrayal of Thailand certainly ticks all the Orientalist boxes. Only God Forgives, with its bombastic title and its sexy, red-lit sheen will please fans of sado-arty cinema, and fans of Ryan Gosling, but it’s thin stuff that is best consumed as a cinematic coffee-table book.