“Mixes elegance with brutality to devastating effect…”
That’s right folks, it’s time for the women of the world to spend 90 minutes wishing they were with Ryan Gosling, and for men to spend that same time wishing they were Ryan Gosling, as he returns to team up with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn in their latest picture Only God Forgives. However, though certainly as stylised as the aforementioned title, what this is lacking in, is ingenuity.
Set in Thailand, we delve into the dark and dangerous life of Julian (Gosling), who receives an untimely visit from his mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who flies out to Asia following the death of her eldest son Billy (Tom Burke), who had been brutally murdered following a vile attack on a young girl. Crystal is desperate for Julian to avenge his brother’s death, and though he faces a moral decision given the monstrous acts of which his sibling was capable of, his quest leads him towards law enforcer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), as a violent game of cat and mouse unravels across the streets of Bangkok.
Drive, deservedly, has gathered a cult status since it’s release in 2011, and where Only God Forgives suffers, is within it’s contrived attempt to provoke a similar response – as director’s so often suffer when vying for such a distinction. Winding Refn’s latest production is simply too pretentious, and feels too unnatural in its stylistic approach, lacking that swagger that Drive maintained so effortlessly.
However Winding Refn has once again managed to create a dark, brooding atmosphere, one that is enhanced with a chilling score, and a predominantly red and black aesthetic – two colours that naturally provoke feelings of passion and danger. The setting has been used masterfully too – as we dig deep into the depravity of the people, touching upon the desperation of these poverty stricken locals who will do almost anything for money. That said, the natural beauty of South East Asia is also on show, as Winding Refn captures the essence of Thailand perfectly.
On a more negative note, there isn’t anyone to fully root for in this title, as no one character is particularly endearing – quite a feat as far as Gosling is concerned. It’s evil versus evil, with a collection of characters that, despite what the title suggests, even God would have trouble finding forgiveness in. Gosling, however, is a complete enigma as always with an alluring screen presence, and a character eased into his surroundings effectively with an elusive introduction, as although we are instantly aware there is a lot of corruption and violence taking place, it takes a while before Julian’s involvement becomes clear.
Gosling is simply a fantastic character actor, and though many of his roles stem from a similar breed of person – that of a pensive, dark figure, he always ensures they remain completely – and subtly – different to one another. A remarkable achievement, given in cases like this, he barely has any dialogue to work with. In the meantime, Scott Thomas is also wonderful, playing an intriguing character in Crystal, engulfed in a severely multilayered relationship with her son Julian, as it becomes increasingly obvious that both his and Billy’s violent tendencies, come as a result of a tumultuous upbringing.
Mixing elegance with brutality to devastating effect, there is the occasional scene in Only God Forgives that is completely unforgettable. However, on the most part here is a film simply trying too hard and though heavily reliant on the subtext, it’s trying to work out exactly what the subtext is that’s the tricky part. Though not quite as well-crafted and mesmerising as Drive, in Winding Refn’s defence, very few films in the past few years have been either.
About the Author
Stefan Pape is a Film Critic for TFM. Follow @stefanpape29