Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling stole the show at Cannes two years ago with one of the best art-house films in modern cinema, so it comes as no surprise that their second collaboration, Only God Forgives, has undoubtedly been one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year. The prospect of this latest feature, set with not just Refn’s usual ultra-violence but with Thai boxing, is an idea that sent tingles down my spine! What’s so surprisingly is just how disappointedly un-tingly I felt when finally watching it.
The film I speak of from two years ago is of course Drive, a Mona Lisa of art films that even Hollywood should tremble when hearing the name of. Arguably no modern blockbuster has quite achieved the same cult following. Heck, it’s a film I even went out and bought a second time, on Blu-ray, just because I wanted to experience its unmatched style and character in full HD! So it transpires then that Refn and Gosling’s second flick together, a film that tries so desperately hard to be like Drive that it might as well have been called ‘Drive 2’, was a rather big waste of talent that only God could forgive.
Julian (Gosling), a drug dealer, boxing club owner and mummy’s boy, has an older brother, Billy, who’s killed early on after sickeningly raping and murdering an underage prostitute. Julian tracks down the man responsible for his brother’s murder, Choi, who he learns is the prostitute’s father. Being the more compromising of the two brothers, and apparently therefore the more sympathetic (although we’re never really given much reason to emotionally invest in Gosling’s character), Julian lets Choi walk free after he finds out what his brother had done to deserve his fate. But where the story could have ended there, with Julian moving on, Choi explains that he was forced to kill Billy by super-rouge-cop, Lieutenant Chang, otherwise known as the Angel of Vengeance.
When the vile and obnoxious mother Crystal, played brilliantly by Kristin Scott Thomas, turns up to identify her eldest son’s body, Julian explains why he was killed. Infuriated by Julian’s reluctance to do anything about the murder, and even more so by the fact he thinks Billy really deserved it, Crystal orders Julian to bring this Angel of Vengeance to justice. And so, in the fashion of the much superior Drive, a journey of blood lust and vengeance begins. Even after a silly but still entertaining video-game-like showdown, the blood shed still continues until Refn realises there’s just about no one left to brutally massacre (mostly with a samurai sword).
The big reason why OGF didn’t work was because Refn so clearly took every ultra violent bit of Drive and amped it up to the point where it wasn’t charming, or artistic, or brave anymore. Instead it was over-the-top, unimaginative and ultimately, a bit boring. It’s as if they borrowed every neon-soaked frame of Drive and upped the saturation in Photoshop, added a red filter over everything and edited it all back together again in a foreign language, with a new title.
Speaking of its red hue, our once favourite director really couldn’t get any more symbolic of the blood this film explicitly and unashamedly depicts if he tried. Well, maybe he could – if he dressed every prostitute in a red dress and sat every character in a Thai restaurant at a mahogany table with, you guessed it – red chairs! Oh no wait, he did that too! That there friends, is Only God Forgives; for the whole duration of its 90 minute running time, which incidentally is a good 70 minutes too long, Refn gives a metaphor and hidden meaning to almost everything. In the end, the story really has no substance at all.
Arguably an even bigger hole in its already hollow story, is that you never really feel like the plot or any of the characters have much of a purpose for being there, except of course to be butchered by the Angel of Vengeance. For his apparent crazy skills with a sword, the Angel is just an old man who doesn’t do a great job of scaring you. It’s difficult to understand how exactly he put Gosling on his butt in a Tekken-like fight when he can’t run ten yards before losing his breath when chasing a hit man.
It goes without saying that Only God Forgives is certainly a big let down. It fell at every hurdle and whatever spark there might have been under the surface was doused in blood and buried under the countless bodies that lay dead in the wake of Refn’s violent style. All is not lost though – with a track record like Bronson, Valhalla Rising and Drive, Refn can afford a minor blip once or twice in his otherwise spotless career. Hopefully he’ll be back at the top of his game when his next film is out, which reportedly may be a horror/sex/thriller called ‘I Walk with the Dead’, starring Carrey Mulligan, who of course played the sweet Irene in Drive. Fingers crossed that their second collaboration together will be a touch better than his and Gosling’s! Until then though, go pick up a copy of Drive to take your mind off this minor slip up. Oh and just for the record Nicolas, I forgive you too.