Editor’s note: This review originally ran during The Cannes Film Festival 2013.
The beauty of every frame of Only God Forgives—the striking compositions, the vivid colors—is so exceptional that it mostly offsets the questionable creative decisions that go on within that frame. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up film to Drive is even bolder in its design, mixing his trademark violence with an almost austere, dreamlike quality that positions this revenge thriller as something of a revenge tone poem. The characters never become more than well-positioned furniture in those frames, but the movie’s quite gorgeous in its own limited way.
Refn (who previously made the Pusher trilogy and Bronson) has reunited with his Drive star Ryan Gosling, who this time plays a far less assertive character. He’s Julian, an American living in a Bangkok underworld where everything is lit in vibrant reds and blues and where faces are always partially obscured by moody shadows. His older brother Billy (Tom Burke) has been murdered by the father of a teen prostitute that Billy raped and killed, an action that brings Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to Bangkok. Also mixed up in the criminal world, she’s like Cruella de Vil without the mink coat and dalmatians, hurling racist epithets in every direction and goading her remaining son into finding out who’s behind Billy’s death.
That setup suggests a wall-to-wall action picture perhaps similar in approach to Drive, but Refn goes in another direction, stripping away the propulsion to deliver a druggy, slow-burn yarn where the occasional action sequence punctuates the otherwise hypnotic sparseness.
Equipped with a terrific score from Drive composer Cliff Martinez that’s full of pounding drums and terse strings, Only God Forgives doesn’t so much build tension as it sets a mood and then explores it like spelunkers in a cave, examining every crevice of this dark, mysterious space. Consequently, Refn’s film lacks the obvious rush of some of his earlier work, but its hyper-lucid attention to its atmospheric tone makes it relatively gripping nonetheless.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s an unqualified success. Because Refn (who wrote the script himself) sees his characters more as types, they’re never particularly interesting, even though he and cinematographer Larry Smith know precisely how to maximize their dramatic potential as B-movie avatars. (Gosling has never looked hunkier or more brooding, while Scott Thomas has never been more garish and frightening.) And while Gosling does a solid job playing a Hamlet-esque man of inaction, Julian is a dull center of a story that needs a stronger pulse. Compensating for him—or, more accurately, over-compensating—Scott Thomas camps up her performance as the chain-smoking, coarse, withering mother, showing off her chiseled arms and letting the sharp lines on her face betray a woman who has seen her share of humanity’s scummier side.
What does Only God Forgives add up to? Not a lot, although Vithaya Pansringarm is nasty fun as the film’s central villain who has the amazing ability to pull his sword from behind his back at any moment, even though he doesn’t ever appear to be carrying one. (It’s a running gag that suggests that, despite the film’s solemn tone, Refn still wants the audience to enjoy the hyper-stylized, movie-movie absurdity of the whole thing.) Only God Forgives is endlessly watchable, its visuals and music a ravishing treat. (To be honest, it might almost work better as an art installation since there’s very little story to speak of.) Refn has always been drunk on movies, but he’s gone a bit down the rabbit hole this time. There’s plenty of ravishing cinema in Only God Forgives, but almost nothing of real life.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Rhatha Phongam, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke
Release Date: Screening in the Official Competition at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival