There are some films that split audiences right down the middle and have the power to provoke heated debates on both sides. Nicolas Winding-Refn’s latest film, ONLY GOD FORGIVES, is the latest film to join that list.
His last film, 2011’s DRIVE, was a massive cult hit, and the coolest film of that year. Ryan Gosling was the star of the film, and ONLY GOD FORGIVES is their second collaboration. The two films share the star, composer Cliff Martinez and the same moody visuals, but if DRIVE came across as more than a little slow and pretentious, ONLY GOD FORGIVES takes it even further, and plays out as an ultra-slow descent into a nightmarish world.
If that sounds like a fun evening at the movies, you’re in for a great 90 minutes. For anyone else, ONLY GOD FORGIVES will feel like four hours, where nothing much happens in between five minute scenes of Ryan Gosling sitting in beautifully-shot neon rooms in the heart of Bangkok, starring out into the middle distance.
Gosling is a YouTube parody waiting to happen. Many critics and film fans love his Steve McQueen-esque method of non-acting, but the number of times you can get away with that without becoming unintentionally hilarious is a pretty short list. It worked in DRIVE because of his unspoken connection with Carey Mulligan’s character. This time around, Gosling just seems like he’s in a coma.
Herein lies the basis of the debate: Is Gosling’s Julian a man frozen by the effects of his upbringing at the hands of a mother (played brilliantly by an unrecognisable Kristen Scott-Thomas) who has abused him in more ways than one, yet dotes on him in equal measure, and a traumatic event that led to him leaving the United States and taking up base in Bangkok?
Or is Gosling just one part of a larger problem: Nicolas Winding-Refn’s instance on everything being at a snail’s pace and meant to MEAN SOMETHING, without actually signifying what that this or making any attempt to make you actually give two hoots about one single character. It’s hard to get involved in ONLY GOD FORGIVES.
The story – and it can be written on a napkin it’s that thin – is centred around two characters, Gosling’s kickboxing club owner Julian, and Vithaya Pansringarm’s Chang, a cop who may just be the Angel of Vengeance. Chang floats around Bangkok serving his own special brand of justice, before winding down with a bout of karaoke. No kidding.
Julian’s brother is killed in an act of vengeance after he brutally murders a prostitute, and this leads to his mother turning up and messing with the poor lost soul’s head enough to make him go after the people who did it. A conflicted Julian clearly feels that his brother deserved it, but what mother wants, she gets…
The relationship between Julian and his mother is the most interesting part of the film, and Scott-Thomas’ portrayal – a mixture of Desperate Housewives, Paris Hilton at 40 and Joe Pesci in Goodfellas in drag – gives the film a much needed lift from the near-coma it stays in for majority of the film. She manipulates, humiliates and seduces her son to do her work, leading to a showdown with Chang that will surprise the audience, who will be expecting a Kill Bill-style face-off for the ages but are met with something else entirely.
ONLY GOD FORGIVES will remind many of David Lynch’s work in the 80’s and early 90’s, around the time of BLUE VELVET and TWIN PEAKS. It is unfair to criticise Winding-Refn’s work and then put Lynch’s work on a pedestal, because they are of a very similar breed. They will infuriate and fascinate in equal measure, and cause heated debate for years to come. Maybe that’s the point? Let the conversations commence. Just leave your swords at home…