In the fall of 2011 came a picture that I liked a lot when I saw it in the theater and have since grown to love. That would be Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and Albert Brooks. The unconventional action thriller has a strangely wonderful hypnotic feel that I responded very positively to. Its occasional bursts of graphic violence and its absolutely terrific musical score accentuated an entirely unique film watching experience. It’s among my favorite pictures of the 21st century.
Needless to say, when I heard about director Refn and star Gosling reuniting for Only God Forgives, the pic immediately became one of my most anticipated titles of 2013. The film has had a rather bizarre journey to audiences since then. Currently it’s playing in the arthouse circuit on a limited number of movie screens. However, the decision was also made to simultaneously release it on Video On Demand and services like Vudu. I watched it through Vudu in the company of my own home. Just a month or so ago, I would have definitely told you I’d see it theatrically. The fact that Only God Forgives is not getting much of a wide release at the multiplex indicates a lot of skepticism from the studio. While Drive posted decent box office numbers, audiences didn’t respond well to it. It’s easy to understand why. Drive is not a mainstream picture (though its got quite a cult following).
And Only God Forgives is even less mainstream. Furthermore, it’s receiving mostly negative reviews and was booed a couple of months ago at the Cannes Film Festival (reports also suggest some attendees awarded it a standing ovation).
Shot on location and taking place in Bangkok, the pic actually has a pretty straightforward plot. Gosling plays Julian, a drug dealer who also runs a boxing club with his brother Billy. When Billy brutally murders an underage prostitute, a badass police lieutenant (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows the murdered victim’s father to exact revenge on Billy. When Julian is presented with this information, he chooses not to retaliate because of his late brother’s despicable actions. That is, at least, until Julian and Billy’s crime lord mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) rolls into Bangkok determined to hold all those responsible for her first-born son’s demise accountable. Along the way, we find out some rather disturbing details about the family dynamic between Julian, Billy, and their violent mother. To say Julian has Mommy (and Daddy) issues would be quite an understatement.
For those who have seen Drive, though, you know that plot is really secondary compared to Refn’s use of visual images, bursts of violence and placement of musical score. That holds true for Only God Forgives as well. First, the score by Cliff Martinez is absolutely stunning (he also scored Drive). The cinematography by Larry Smith is dreamlike and effective (he worked with Kubrick on Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut in various capacities). Like Drive, the violence comes often unexpectedly and is quite graphic (be warned).
What’s the main difference between Drive and Only God Forgives? To me, Drive felt like it had a soul due to the relationship between Gosling and Mulligan’s characters. Forgives does not. Julian’s character does have an underwritten connection with a prostitute Mai (Rhatha Phongam), but it goes nowhere other than a rather memorable scene where the couple go to dinner with Mama Crystal.
Only God Forgives basically just feels like an exercise in style with little to no substance. Gosling barely speaks in the picture (it makes his Drive character seem like a blabbermouth) and while his performance is serviceable, he doesn’t have much to do work with. Scott Thomas has by far the most colorful character and she mostly succeeds in not going too far over the top.
From a technical point of view, there is much to be admired about the film and I still will anticipate future Refn projects to a high degree. That said, Only God Forgives is a bit of a disappointment. If you didn’t respond well to Drive, don’t even bother with this. For those who did, you may feel let down like I did but still consider it a worthwhile experience watching a talented director display his individual and often exciting style.
**1/2 (out of four)