Let’s get something straight out of the gate: Only God Forgives is not Drive 2: Electric Bugaloo…not even close. Upon reflection it’s really hard to say what OGF is at all. It’s contains no narrative or characters in a traditional sense. It has huge stars (Ryan Gosling & Kristin Scott Thomas) who are ciphers for violent outbursts and little else. I’m sure a script was written but I imagine it’s about 20 pages of actual dialogue while the rest say, “Director creates a mood.” Yet, despite all these bizarre decisions I’m still torn whether Director Nicolas Winding Refn has created something that’s brilliantly mad or the biggest piece of garbage to grace the cinema this year.
The story is a simple, brutal folly. Julian (Gosling) and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) run an underground kickboxing club in Bangkok. They’re both clearly in deep with some bad people but the criminal status quo requires it. Also, Billy isn’t exactly a peach. One dark, neon-drenched night Billy seeks out and murders a 16-year old prostitute. He stays behind at the crime scene as the cops bring her father in to identify the body. Lead detective Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) elects to allow the father to do as he pleases with Billy. Needless to say it doesn’t end well.
Upon learning the news, the boy’s mother Crystal (Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok to bury her first born. Crystal is not a nice woman. When told of Billy’s crimes she responds, “he probably had his reasons.” She’s also a bit salty about how he went out and dispatches a hitman to take care of his killer. This puts in motion a slow-burn series of events as detective Chang hunts down this chain of psychotics one-by-one enacting his unique form of vigilante justice.
The plot is thin but that’s not the point. Refn uses this veil to construct a wicked fever dream. Characters drift in and out of violent and sexual fantasies with no particular indicators. The nightmares slowly bleed into reality. People interact but it’s only to narrowly push the plot toward its inevitable conclusion. Refn is clearly more concerned with mood.
To capture this he frames his characters deliberately in each frame – an obvious Kubrickian device – but one that few modern filmmakers employ better. It creates no spacial awareness which in this story is very unsettling as extreme violence seems to lurk around every corner. Unfortunately, the frame can also be a massive deterrent as Refn uses copious amounts of slow motion with ponderous results. Shots will linger for what seems like minutes on a character simply undoing his cufflinks or walking across a room. It takes a mood that could’ve been disturbing and renders it dull.
That said, this wonderfully assembled cast assimilates just fine to the proceedings while ultimately not doing much. Gosling as Julian has a serious Oedipal complex but only explores it in a few scant minutes. We’re shown that he lacks any self-confidence but he’s Ryan Gosling so the characterization rings false. Kristin Scott Thomas is given the most scenery to chew as Crystal – the incestual mother – which she does quite admirably. Her interactions with Julian are mean and Thomas gives them a verve otherwise lacking from any other character. This central relationship could’ve framed a devastating narrative but instead remains fairly moot. Vithaya Pansringarm is bizarre and stone-faced as Chang but often weirdly mesmerizing. When he pulls out his sword to give the bad guy what’s what it’s always followed by a full karaoke performance (there are 3 of these performances sprinkled throughout.) It’s hard not to be a bit amused than completely repulsed by them.
Refn’s influences are clear (David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, the French New Wave) and usually they suit his stories well. Only God Forgives has the ingredients for a special thriller but lacks what made those director’s even most sterile efforts interesting: character. Kubrick and Lynch swim in character allowing the tone to suit the actors rather than attempt to create it out of thin air. Here Refn fails that initial test leaving his actors swimming in a sea of blood-soaked metaphors gasping for air. I was certainly never bored watching Only God Forgives, just completely befuddled.