Director and screenwriter Nicolas Winding Refn has made several interesting and versatile films since he started in Hollywood. Those include the Pusher series, Bronson, Valhalla Rising and my all-time favorite, Drive. Drive is one of the best films of the last five years. Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan have impeccable chemistry, the screenplay is thrilling and mysterious, and the soundtrack is unforgettable. So how did a majorly talented director start from the top and fall to the mediocre pile in Tinseltown? It’s because his newest film Only God Forgives is annoyingly pretentious.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a Thai boxing club and a smuggling drug ring with his brother Billy (Tom Burke) in Bangkok. In his free time, Julian goes to the local entertainment club, where he spends his evenings watching his favorite dancer Mai (Rhatha Phongam). When Billy is suddenly murdered, crime lord matriarch and the boys’ mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) flies in from London to bring back the body. However, Crystal has other plans in mind while she’s in town. She wants her son’s killer dead and she is pressuring Julian to do the job.
Only God Forgives isn’t completely awful. In fact, there is a good bit to be celebrated here. Cinematographer Larry Smith (Bronson and Eyes Wide Shut) does an excellent job capturing the city of Bangkok and symbolizing the lead characters through unique photography. Music composer Cliff Martinez (Drive and Spring Breakers) creates a hauntingly beautiful score that is eerily similar to his work in Drive. Martinez’s roaring score could hold its own as a lead character in the film. But the cinematography and lyrical score cannot lift this dull screenplay, although they really try.
The main problem with Refn’s Only God Forgives is that he gives us extraordinary images, but nothing really to look at. His earlier films, like Drive and Bronson, are thrilling, energetic and character driven; here, it seems he is relying mainly on the gorgeous photography and violent action to lead the film.
Gosling, who always gives incredible performances, does nothing here. Literally. Whatever Refn was trying to accomplish with Gosling walking aimlessly around, giving a completely one-note performance, I will never know. There’s nothing wrong with limited dialogue from a character, but Gosling’s Julian seems like he doesn’t even know what he’s doing in Bangkok.
Even in the limited screen time that she has, Kristin Scott Thomas easily gives the best performance of the movie. Her portrayal as the trashy drug lord mom is the only performance in the film that isn’t one-note. Even in the most simplistic scene of the film, where Thomas’s character is checking into her hotel in Bangkok, we learn of her arrogance, sense of entitlement and rough upbringing all in just a few minutes. Even though the film itself isn’t spectacular, I wouldn’t be surprised if Thomas was recognized for this performance during awards season.
Only God Forgives is a major step down from Refn’s earlier work, but the beautiful cinematography, Martinez’s vibrant score and Thomas’s Oscar-worthy performance will satisfy a few cinephiles.