This is the second film from the director-actor tag team of Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling, the first being 2011’s critical darling and BAFTA nominated Drive. Despite there being some similarities between the two films, Only God Forgives finds itself bogged down in a kind of symbolic pompousness that never allows the plot to move faster than a glacier.
Only God Forgives was famously booed at this year’s Cannes Festival and it is easy to see why; the lingering shots and mute narrative that occasionally threatened to inhibit Drive’s refreshing brilliance are allowed to run wild here.
The film follows the story of Julian (Gosling), a Bangkok based drug dealer whose mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas), comes to town after Julian’s brother, Billy (Tom Burke), is brutally murdered following his rape and murder of a 16 year old Thai prostitute. From here on out the minimal plot revolves around Crystal and Julian hunting or being hunted by the brutal Bangkok police chief who instigated the death of Billy.
The story progresses at a gruelling dawdle, ultimately detracting from the flickers of brilliance that are occasionally on display. One thing that is made clear is that Refn knows how to frame a shot. There are numerous occasions throughout the film where one is struck by wonderfully touching and thought-provoking still shots of Gosling and the other cast members that invoke a sort of ‘Night Hawks of the neon’ feel. Furthermore, there is almost no dialogue in the whole film, instead Refn relies on these pictograph images and lighting to convey the characters mood and how they react to one another. This is all well and good, but all these ideas that sound encouraging in principle are taken to the extreme in this film, making it at times painful to watch.
In an interview with Vice, Refn said that Only God Forgives represents the violent fantasies of a society that no longer has a need for violence. This is certainly true and once one understands that this is the underpinning meaning of the film it makes the viewing experience slightly more enjoyable. Nevertheless, the self-indulgent manner by which the film goes about purveying these ideas detracts from the ideas itself. Acts of violence are impulsive, fast, and vicious. The abhorrently slow pacing of the movie reflects the complete opposite to what violence – especially the extreme violence that permeates Only God Forgives – is.
Overall, Only God Forgives is a beautiful and well acted film that gets bogged down in its own terribly slow and self-loving narrative. It is a vain film that loves itself that little bit too much for it to be absolved. One cannot help feeling that Ryan Gosling’s career at the moment is a little bit like Vincent Chase’s from Entourage; Drive was Gosling’s Queens Boulevard and Only God Forgives is his Medellin. So by that analogy Ryan Gosling is headed for a super-hero movie directed by James Cameron, well maybe.
Only God Forgives is released on 2 August.