Nicolas Winding Refn gained something of a cult following after Drive, his previous team up with Ryan Gosling, and the film even gained the Danish filmmaker a number of fans who would most likely usually favour more mainstream fare. His and Gosling’s follow-up, Only God Forgives, has just premiered at Cannes, playing in Competition, but it seems unlikely that this collaboration will result in the same adoration that Drive has been treated to, or crossover success. Far more stylised, violent and obtuse than Drive, Only God Forgives is a return to some of the more abstract work found in Refn’s filmography, such as Valhalla Rising or Fear X.
This would be no bad thing if there was something to be found within the abstraction beyond some handsome production design and reasonably pleasing lighting, but Only God Forgives may just be the dumbest film Refn has ever made. Allowing the viewer plenty of time to consider the meaning of what one is seeing – there are a large number of almost static shots of characters looking pensively into middle distance – Refn fails to provide anything meaningful to hold onto. Even grasping, reaching for subtext one comes up lacking anything tangible. There’s the suggestion that we are supposed to think the film has something to do with retribution and revenge, the title certainly signposts this, but there is no meat to this idea in the film at all.
Even if one accepts that the film is not actually about anything, Refn almost certainly seemed to think it was though, then what are we left with? Beyond some handsome visuals, although a few of the framing choices are startling bad, and a very effective doom-laden score from the highly talented Cliff Martinez, very little else.
The most entertaining aspect of the film is certainly Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays Julian’s (Gosling) mother Crystal, a tyrannical and foul-mouthed bundle of toxic rage. She arrives in Bangkok, the setting of the film, after hearing about the death of her other son, Billy (Tom Burke), who was killed after he raped and murdered a 16 year-old girl. Her response to this piece of information? “I’m sure he had his reasons”. A pretty sickening line but one delivered with such a deadpan approach from Kristin Scott Thomas that it plays as a nice piece of jet black comedy. She also steals later scenes too, such as a dinner scene with Julian and a prostitute he is pretending is his girlfriend. Stealing the scene from Gosling, whose somnambulistic performance is clearly a deliberate choice but a dreadful one, and another character whose ‘narrative function’ appears to be listening and looking pretty, is not exactly a great achievement though.
As the skeletal plot makes its way to its inevitable and bleak climax/anticlimax we begin to see quite how toxic an influence Crystal is on Julian, and presumably his brother before him. The pair of brothers have been running a Muay Thai Boxing club in Bangkok as a cover to sell drugs but it is clear that Ma Crystal is at the head of their operation and a minor revelation in the last third suggests that their reasons for leaving America were related to something even darker.
All this swimming in a cesspool of violence and debauchery could at least hold some visceral pleasures but Only God Forgives is actually a pretty drudging affair and even at just ninety minutes it really drags. Who knew that a dark and twisted fantasy could be quite so dull.