More Refns’ wet dream than an audience’s fantasy
About ten minutes into the film it had occurred to me that Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, was booed at the Cannes Film Festival, and I was beginning to see why. Ryan Gosling is playing the same character he did in Drive, only he has now been placed in Bangkok and runs a kick boxing gym with side endeavors. Julian (Gosling) rarely speaks and if he does it’s because another character has prompted him to do so. His brother Billy (Tom Burke, The Hour) has a bit more personality and gets his kicks from under age prostitutes which eventually leads to his death. Once Billy’s mother Crystal (an unrecognizable Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok she brings more fire to the plot, with the look of a former Vegas stripper, it seems as though Crystal has more balls than Billy and Julian combined. Regardless of the circumstances Crystal wants Billy’s death avenged, while Julian understands the complexities of what that means.
Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) a cop who was involved in Billy’s death, more protagonist than villain, is not one to go softly into the night. With Gosling mainly silent in words and charisma, Pansringarm carries this film. Like Gosling he has very little dialogue, but is able to capture a feeling by a look or a movement. Visually this film is stunning and as Refn described during his Q & A at Lincoln Center, the film was intended to be an “assault on the senses,” but in terms of plot development Only God Forgives has a very basic tale to tell.
When one sees a beautiful shot in a film, they take note and the scene becomes distinct and meaningful, but when assaulted by several over the top shots, the result is annoyance rather than pleasure—more film student on acid than auteur. It was as if every shot had something to say, compensating for an absent script and obscuring a central meaning—if one even exists? With no production design for the budget Refn shot the city as it was, in gay clubs with real Chinese bodybuilders posing in the night. It is clear that Refn’s wanted this film to be mainly a visual experience with little dialogue and no submission to a script. Refn referred to his actors for plot feedback, and the script changed course during filming, with him re-writing thirty pages after his child saw a ghost at a Bangkok hotel.
How you feel about this film will depend upon what type of viewer you are, if you’re into a bloody 90 minute synth pop music video, this is for you. The film also borders on B-movie status (although intentional) with Cliff Martinez’ over the top score omnipresent during the fight scenes, giving it a Fear City vibe. Pansringarm singing chops also come into play during two stunning bar Karaoke scenes. Aspects of the film are beautiful and riveting, but none of the characters do anything to make us care about what happens next. Only God Forgives is more Refns’ wet dream than an audience’s fantasy.