Conked out on Quaaludes and projecting colors at the screen in lieu of a legitimate narrative, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives is nothing like the sensation that was Drive—and while it’s not fair to expect a sequel of that film, audiences anticipating Refn’s latest as something similarly electrifying (as online clips have hinted) are in for a severe disappointment. Embracing style over substance (often Refn’s go-to, emphasized here to a fault), the Ryan Gosling gong-show the film could have been is instead tedious; filled with thousand-yard stares, macho-man gesturing, and comatose blocking.
If there is a plot to Only God Forgives, it is essentially the nastiest highlights of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” and Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” wrapped around a revenge dance tête-à-tête, an equation that could have been more than the gratuitous, hyper-violent indulgence on show. Nevertheless: when Julian’s brother is killed, a chain reaction of subsequent slayings begins with the ruthless Chang, an ex-cop known as the Angel of Vengeance (Vithaya Pansringarm). In the middle of this is Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who flies to Bangkok to claim the body of her dead son and coerce Julian (Gosling) into doing something about the situation.
One of the film’s more lamentable tragedies is the pacing, and the film’s positively glacial speed is due to the way Refn’s characters walk, talk and stalk. These characters are androids on the fritz; their movement jerky and slow as if everyone wore ankle weights to train for the shoot and forgot to take them off. Ryan Gosling’s Julian is particularly ridiculous, his deer-in-headlights character standing in doorways and looking blankly down hallways with little to do and nothing to say (Gosling has fewer than 20 lines). Post-Drive, Julian is approaching a sort of Gosling parody, and it’s depressing to think Only God Forgives may retroactively spoil memories of The Driver.
Composer Cliff Martinez, back with Refn after his head-bobbing Drive contribution, does a suitable job instilling the film with a soundtrack that features the requisite ambience and downbeat thumpers you’d predict. And while there’s no stand-out track here like Kavinsky’s “Nightcall,” there are some karaoke performances by Chang that may prove memorable. For better or for worse, though, the music is not much of a factor here, despite that being one of Drive’s strongest selling points.
There are two distinctly excellent aspects to Only God Forgives, but neither is given the prominence needed to propel the film to greatness. The first is Kristin Scott Thomas, here uncensored and spewing just the filthiest things Refn could write; the other is Refn’s mise-en-scène, his backdrops consistently artistic and screensaver cool (a dragon-inspired lattice lit with crimson is one of the film’s more striking images). Likely due to his claimed color-blindness, Refn and cinematographer Larry Smith (Eyes Wide Shut) imbue the film with a blue-and-red contrast palette that feels like old school 3D, setting the stage nicely with a slick and neon chill. (But seriously, can’t someone turn on a light or something?)
But the consistent visual effectiveness of Refn’s backgrounds is part of the reason why Only God Forgives is so disappointing: the action doesn’t match the drapes. Scott Thomas’ dialogue is somehow far more outrageous than the actual violence, which is relatively tame and one of the film’s more overt failures. If these characters weren’t reduced to abstract forms of emotion, it’d be another thing; as it stands, it’s hard to be shocked by fake violence enacted upon robotic human shells. Scott Thomas aside (her role is a uniquely terrific one), the performances here are devoid of anything human; rather, they are pawns moving in slow motion to emphasize the film’s general expressionism (working, perhaps, for fans of Refn’s earlier filmography). Sure, people in this film bleed and bleed—Refn drops a bomb on the cast—but it’s not because it’s a movie that we know the violence isn’t real. It’s not real because we aren’t given anything other than lifeless characters in an immobile stage play—a juvenile reading of Greek tragedy—for the damage to be dealt effectively.