To assess Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” as a bad example of a “style over substance” film would be reductive. Refn’s masterpiece “Drive” could not be called any different, but those stylistic flourishes at the very least evoked fear, thrills and painful emotions for its nameless hero.
“Only God Forgives” is so shallowly repugnant because it stoically, passively and slowly evokes nothing at all. Refn’s film is so often unapologetically frank, vulgar and violent, but its real flaw is forcing us to sit listlessly as it blows off steam.
The story involves a boxing club manager and drug dealer named Julian (Ryan Gosling) who is seeking retribution for the death of his older brother. His brother Billy (Tom Burke) was killed after he raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl (he wanted a 14-year-old). Billy was murdered when a sword-wielding Bangkok cop named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) held him hostage so that the 16-year-old’s father could have his justice. Although a sufficient story for Julian, Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) wants Chang’s head regardless of Billy’s deed.
The lack of a real compelling justification for so much bloodshed will not escape most viewers and likely does not escape Refn. These characters are not made to be sympathized with. The point seems to be that the Bangkok they live in is already a darkly rendered hellscape, with red filters, exotic wallpaper and neon lighting lining every corridor; any retribution to be found does not exist in this world.
So if you are looking for a reason as to why Julian decides to drag a bystander out of a strip club by his upper jaw, you will not find it. But my question lies with how Julian can sit in front of his masturbating girlfriend or his mother hurling around vulgarities about the size of his penis without eliciting any reaction at all.
Gosling is currently facing a perception that he cannot act and that his range is limited to vague reaction shots as horrible things happen around him. This role will not help his cause. He recites perhaps two dozen words throughout the film and exudes little more than a blank stare in return. When he does have one outburst, in which he screams, “Take it off” to his angry girlfriend, it comes across as silly and uncharacteristic.
He is however “Only God Forgives”’s closest thing to a protagonist. It begs the question, if Julian cannot even be brought to react, why should we?
Part of that emptiness has to do with Refn tempering the film at a glacier pace. Although most audiences will recall the film’s more violent outbursts, including one in which a hit man is slowly stabbed through the eye, more will recall how little actually happens in “Only God Forgives.” Characters slowly walk through empty hallways, stare at their hands and turn their heads slowly in reaction to unseen and unheard triggers. It makes the pacing in “Drive” feel like “Transformers” in comparison.
Even Cliff Martinez’s infectiously ‘80s and techno score from “Drive” is missing. Now Martinez returns with strings and organists slowly building sustained notes to little climax.
Refn could be right that violent images contain some fetishistic properties, but there is nothing to be aroused by in “Only God Forgives.” Had it aroused me more deeply in any way, good or bad, I’d be more inclined to remember it.