Nicolas Winding Refn finally broke out onto the international stage with Drive, his ultra-slick stripped-back thriller that won him the best director award at Cannes in 2011. For his latest, another violent thriller so stripped back its veins are oxidising, Refn has reunited with Drive star Ryan Gosling and the results are… troubling.
Turning his attentions to Thailand, Refn’s film puts Gosling’s kickboxing promoter/drug dealer Julian on a collision course with corrupt sword-wielding supercop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) – a man so terrifying he cleanses himself after torture sessions with a relaxing bout of karaoke – after his morally base brother dies in his custody.
The man who made a supervillain out of Albert Brooks (without having to use animation), Refn here transforms Kristin Scott Thomas into the ultimate controlling gangster mother, a Lady Macbeth by way of Animal Kingdom’s Smurf. Thomas’s Crystal is the driving force behind the revenge plot against Chang, and her grotesquely Oedipal manipulations of Julian provide as much spine-shudderingly nasty moments as Chang’s array of pointy weapons. She gets all the best lines, but then there aren’t that many lines to get.
Only God Forgives is almost more of a remake of Walter Hill’s The Driver than was Drive, with its cool-as-a-cucumber “hero”, unswayable villain cop and seedy manipulative sexpot. But draining dialogue and backstory only works if your characters are likeable, and Refn’s story fails at this first juncture. Gosling comes off vacant, sometimes bored, as if the audience is meant to relate to him purely for being Ryan Gosling. The Driver in Drive had endless cool, here all Julian has is a neat waistcoat and a worrying case of mummy issues.
Back behind the camera is Bronson cinematographer Larry Smith, whose eternally red-stained frames are stunning to behold, lighting the dangerous dark of Bangkok with a tense neon glow. It’s a gorgeous work, but the content is never as interesting as the lighting and framing deserve, while the choppy, esoteric editing aims for Nic Roeg but winds up lacking meaning or punch.
The music by Cliff Martinez thumps along suitably, but it is run-off from his Drive score, and at times sounds frustratingly like the work of Philip Glass.
What’s truly lacking here is any sense of Thailand. There is no cultural context, no feel for the city, its history or society, and the film feels like the work of someone whose only understanding of Bangkok was a viewing of Ong Bak and a Lonely Planet guidebook.
In the end Only God Forgives is neither satisfying nor entertaining. It’s often quite boring really. But it’s not exactly bad, just a stunningly composed slip-up in Refn’s career. It’s characterless and verging on plotless; style beating substance across the face with a hot wok. The Oedipal subplot would be laughable if it weren’t so busy making your soul throw up.
The preposterous levels of gore will ensure more than enough walk-outs, while the lack of character and drama will take care of many of the rest. The remainder can absorb the scenery, ponder the emptiness of the project and laugh if they can manage whenever Kristin Scott Thomas says a naughty word.
Drive fans are gonna be pissed.
(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)