Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Amongst the few people who didn’t like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive on its initial release, there are the tales of people looking for money back from cinemas because the film didn’t deliver the Fast and Furious-style thrills promised by its trailer. Instead, they got a soulful revenge tale with shocking violence and a retro feel. Drive wasn’t deliberately slow; it just wasn’t the adrenaline-pumper those disappointed punters were hoping for. However, ‘disappointingly slow’ would be very apt adjectives for Refn’s follow-up, Only God Forgives.
It is a sad inevitability that every good actor will have a dismal performance somewhere in their back catalogue they’ll rue in later years. It’s not hard to imagine Ryan Gosling’s performance as Julian in Only God Forgives will be the black mark on his copybook. Julian is a co-owner (with his brother Billy, played by Tom Burke) of a Muay Thai club in Bangkok, a front for their drug-dealing operation. Julian is gratingly unfazed by the violence he’s confronted with in his club and his work, so when his brother is murdered after he killed a teenage prostitute, we’re willing him to have a reaction. The light’s are on, but no-one’s home; there’s no life in his eyes and no quiver in his voice. Indeed, the one time he raises his voice, it inspires sniggers where shock is sought. Gary Oldman did it better in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
The possible (probable?) source of his silent angst blows into Bangkok like a leopard skin-clad typhoon. Crystal, Julian and Billy’s mother, arrives hell-bent on avenging her eldest son and exudes almost enough venom to compensate for Julian’s lack thereof. She’s played by Kristin Scott Thomas in a piece of counter-casting that fits into Only God Forgives’ modus operandi of baffling the audience with flash where no soulfulness can be found. With little to define Crystal beyond revenge and her vaguely oedipal relationship with Julian, Scott Thomas chews her dialogue like a bulldog chewing a wasp. There are words in this script that you’d never imagine a character of Scott Thomas’ would say, so chewing the script may be the only way she could get through it. In any case, she enlivens every scene she’s in, which isn’t hard next to Gosling’s cardboard impersonation.
The object of her vengeance is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the police captain who ordered Billy’s death. Pansringarm is easily the best of the cast, not least because his character is actually given some kind of development. Though set up as an ‘angel of death‘ figure, he has a daughter, a talent for swordplay and a penchant for karaoke. A number of karaoke interludes crop up on occasion, usually to provide unintended snorts just after a hideous act of violence. Chang favours slow love songs, which fits the slow movement of just about everything else in this film. The characters talk slowly. They move slowly, as does the camera. If this is intended as atmospheric, Refn needn’t have bothered. There’s more than enough atmosphere in Larry Smith’s blood-red camerawork (recalling Suspiria’s none-more-claret palette) and Cliff Martinez’s score, skilfully blending video game beats with church organs. The whole thing boasts a look worthy of horror, but the most horrifying thing about it (aside from the occcasional limb detachment) is just how long 87 paltry minutes can feel.
Aesthetically and thematically, Only God Forgives is closer to Refn’s earlier work than to Drive, not least in its ability to split audiences (think of Fear X’s chilly critical reception). Yet, where the likes of Valhalla Rising and Bronson had some charm and charisma to balance Refn’s own blend of violent seduction, Only God Forgives is deceptively hollow. The oedipal drama driving the plot is weak and by turns laughable. It looks the part, but whilst Refn wants to luxuriate in the Bangkok atmos, you’ll just want him to get to the point. But he can’t, because there isn’t one.