Film Review: Only God Forgives

Immersive visuals and music don’t compensate for the thin narrative and flat acting in this violent, revenge-fueled tale set in Bangkok.

Lately, Ryan Gosling has been acting mainly with mute, unfeeling stares, most strikingly in Drive, The Place Beyond the Pines, and now Only God Forgives, his second collaboration with writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn. Continuing his fondness for roles as introverted criminals, Gosling plays Julian, who runs a Muay Thai gym with his brother in Thailand as a front for drug dealing, This time, however, Winding Refn favors style over narrative. Where Drive was dynamic and suspenseful, Only God Forgives elicits only a steady sense of dread.

The plot could be a Greek tragedy, where revenge ends up unleashing even more harm, but there aren’t many emotional ups and downs. The narrative has the logic of a dream. I imagine Gosling’s character describing it something like this: “I was in a dream where my brother was killed for doing something horrible and my mother made me kill everyone involved in his death and then they were chasing me too and in between this man was singing karaoke, and I kept seeing this beautiful girl who worked in a brothel.”

Winding Refn embellishes on the feeling of a dream by including fantastical sequences that are barely marked as unreality. The only way to know a character’s hand wasn’t really chopped off is to see him in the next scene with both limbs still intact. What’s also strange is the underplayed performances Winding Refn coaxes out of almost all his actors. In one scene, a man is tortured while in a brothel, surrounded by women who have been instructed to close their eyes. The camera shows just one woman flinch, barely, in reaction to the gruesome acoustics of the scene.

The only character who has a spark of emotion is Julian’s mother, played immeasurably well by Kristin Scott Thomas. She’s a grotesquely awful woman, yet even her exaggerated character feels more real than anyone else. Gosling should anchor the narrative, not her, but perhaps it’s just Winding Refn’s way of showing that Julian can’t escape being his mother’s pawn.

Winding Refn’s work has a reputation for violence, but for a movie about revenge and murder, there’s less gore than you’d expect. There are a couple of memorable moments where the squeamish will look away from the screen, but they will be happy to know that this outing has much less blood than Drive. Where Only God Forgives falls short in terms of a standard narrative, it excels in creating feelings through visuals and sound. Director of photography Larry Smith, who worked for none other than Stanley Kubrick, saturates scenes with neon hues, creating a lush, immersive vision of an underworld. A few key scenes are shot expertly through latticework, creating dappled shadows. The score by Drive’s Cliff Martinez, infused with electronic music, plays off the neon visuals and embellishes the depiction of the underworld. It’s worth pointing out that this is a Bangkok that could never, ever be mistaken for the one in The Hangover Part II, despite both movies’ claim to show the seedy side of the city.

Only God Forgives is clearly the work of talented people, but ones united by Winding Refn’s miscalculations. If only he had tweaked the narrative and coached his actors into slightly different performances, perhaps Winding Refn could have made another Drive. Worth watching for its fragments of excellence, this movie ends up being little more than a pretty face, with no satisfying narrative to sustain interest.