Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Date: August 2
Cycles of violence take centre stage in Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow up to 2011’s pulp fairytale Drive, as a spiteful drug smuggler (Scott Thomas) pushes her conflicted son (Gosling) to take revenge on the iron-fisted police lieutenant (Pansringarm) who killed his brother.
Drive sped Winding Refn into the collective consciousness with its reverence for bygone Hollywood action cinema, distilled through chic visuals and a mesmerising soundtrack. Though much of the talent—Gosling, composer Cliff Martinez—followed Winding Refn on his latest venture, it seems like something got lost in the move.
Only God Forgives takes place in a reality where words are no longer the apex predator on the communication food-chain, supplanted by vacant stares, punctuated silence and dismemberment. It’s the surreal antithesis to Shakespearian monologuing, a meticulously rationed form of dialogue that builds atmosphere if not character.
Anyone in search of actual insight into the emotions playing out on screen will find more satisfaction in the film’s Wikipedia summary than they will actually watching it. Winding Refn must surely see something we don’t—fascination? frustration? conflict?—in Gosling’s dreamy gaze; it’s the film’s visual crutch yet it communicates little more than a sense of brooding indifference.
Despite its backdrop of tacky Thai sex clubs and plastic karaoke bars, this is a gorgeous movie. Framed through corridors and doorways, stark fetishised colours and an unsettling soundscape wrap the action in a dreamlike haze. It manages to evoke Kubrick’s Shining during its most unnerving moments, and A Clockwork Orange during its most violent.
Though not as severe as you might expect from the hands that crafted Drive’s brutal elevator sequence, the flashes of violence in Only God Forgives serve to break up the frequently tedious proceedings, but also lend to the shallowness of it all. Still, it’s in the film’s final moments, as the characters actually express themselves—all be it through punching/shooting/stabbing—that it overcomes its self-serious monotony.
Nicolas Winding Refn has whipped up a blood soaked fever dream with Only God Forgives—a stark and visceral, but ultimately hollow film.