Release Date: July 19th, 2013 (US limited); August 2nd, 2013 (UK)
Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas
When Gareth Evans’ The Raid hit cinemas a few years ago, the film brought with it an urgent sense of bludgeoning violence and hard-hitting combat. Unflinching and at times eye-scrunching, The Raid was also heralded as a bloody masterstroke. The fights were astoundingly well choreographed and, though it wasn’t the most prominent element, the story meant something. Rightly, Evans’ film felt the accommodating brunt of financial and critical adulation, ushering forth a sequel.
Only God Forgives is the antithesis of all things great about The Raid. It fails to yield any semblance of narrative, instead opting to parade a bunch of hateful characters throughout a maze of disorientating sequences. And it is brutal, gratuitously so. The unsubstantiated violence is the worst part.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a Muay Thai club in Bangkok, but uses it as a veil to cover his successful drug smuggling business. After his brother is savagely murdered, Julian finds himself caught up in a storm of hate and vengeance. His spiteful mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), having made the trip to Thailand on the back of her son’s death, orders Julian to seek out his brother’s killer and attain revenge, a demand the American expatriate isn’t too overjoyed about.
Unlike in his previous disparately blood-fuelled outings Valhalla Rising and Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn follows a half-fulfilled mantra here; one that pits grisly style over any form of substance other than the red stuff. The chain of grotesqueness begins almost before the opening credits, as we see murder compensate for more murder. Whereas the likes of both Valhalla Rising and Drive relayed a method to their differing levels of violent outburst — a curious soul and a pulsating beat, respectively — Only God Forgives squanders any opportunity to inject a sense of purpose. Essentially, it is violence for the sake of violence. There is no prevailing message. At one point Kristin Scott Thomas’ character despicably murmurs, “I’m sure he had his reasons,” when she catches wind of a particularly awful revelation. I’m sure Refn has his reasons too, but they are few and far between here.
When the film is not painfully boring it is an uncomfortable watch for all the wrong reasons — certainly, it’s not distressing in an adrenaline-driven way. This is partially due to the uncompromising and baseless brutalities on show, but it is also down to the palette of characters present before us. Either we hate them — and we hate most of them — or they are treated woefully. The females either represent a gaping hole searing through the heart of humanity (in the case of Crystal), or they’re token prostitutes (in the case of everyone else). Refn is painting just one picture that seeks to represent just one slice of humankind, which is fine. But must that picture really be as degrading to women as this is?
The guys aren’t let off lightly either. Ryan Gosling plays Julian, perhaps the least reprehensible of the lot. He has something of a moral backbone, one that stops short of unjust killing. (We’re into that territory, where murder must be separated into unjust and “ach, well maybe he deserved it”). Instead Julian funds his tumultuous conscience by running a drug smuggling operation and, more or less, employing a woman to be his puppet. The character stuffiness does absolutely nothing for Gosling. He’s trapped in a body too similar to the driver in Drive: emotionless, straight-backed but this time without that unorthodox charisma. Despite portraying genuine evil Kristin Scott Thomas is at least afforded the ability to be the only fluid person stuck among a meandering rabble of perceived luminaries. Crystal is a horrible person but she does move in a three-dimensional manner. The rest could pass for robots.
Refn’s customary art house injection arrives by way of the film’s visual appeal. Only God Forgives tries to manifest as a nifty, slick-looking film and cinematographer Larry Smith actually performs commendably. It does look good. Vogue photo shoots also look good, which is exactly what this is — a 90-minute photo op with a Halloween theme set in Thailand. The camera constantly looms around with precision, latching onto folk who are often standing as if giving prior notice; poised, posing and ready for their cover shot. Superficiality reigns supreme, a notion backed up the incessant air of boredom disguised as arty silence.
Aside from the early gore fest, the picture’s opening thirty minutes are bereft of any intrigue, subsequently setting the desolate tone moving forward. Ryan Gosling stares blankly into space. Characters walk so slowly. The violence might be gratuitous, but this carry on is borderline self-indulgent. Even the ambient music — an element Refn often gets spot on — is a little underwhelming. It certainly doesn’t make staring at wallpaper any more interesting. (Though staring at wallpaper might be more interesting than Only God Forgives.)
Nicolas Winding Refn tries to combine the successful strands of two previous outings — Valhalla Rising’s disconcerting climate and Drive’s brute force — yet ends up with the worst possible result. If we are taking this outing as a primary source, attributing Refn with a bleak view of humankind is probably fair. We’re all unmerciful maniacs.
Apparently only God forgives. Well hopefully God won’t see this, else we’ll be living in a world without forgiveness.