Did you enjoy the scenes in Twin Peaks where a dwarf dances in front of a red curtain, but felt they were too short? Did you enjoy the scene in Irreversible when a man gets his head smashed in with a fire extinguisher, but felt there wasn’t enough gore? Do you need more material for your Ryan Gosling won’t eat his cereal Vine, but get annoyed at how animated he normally is on film? Then you will LOVE Only God Forgives.
Nicholas Winding Refn’s second film featuring Ryan Gosling is a very different affair from the critically-lauded Drive. Set in Bangkok, Gosling plays Julian, a monosyllabic gangster and owner of a kick-boxing club. Early on in the film his fellow gangster brother, Billy (Tom Burke), rapes and kills a 16 year-old prostitute (thankfully not shown), and is then murdered by her father, urged on by policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) setting in motion what is essentially a revenge thriller. Upon hearing of Billy’s death, uber-mob-matriarch and contender for world’s worst mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) arrives. And thank God she does, as Scott-Thomas’s extraordinary performance is the most interesting thing about this frankly nasty, flaccid exploitation piece. Crystal is a monster.
The first 15 minutes of the film are bathed in neon green and red, all moody darkness and shadows, setting the scene for the brutal and seedy Bangkok underworld, all at a snail’s pace. The lack of dialogue coupled with the outlandish visuals create an almost hallucinatory quality, perhaps foreshadowing what was still to come. However, this audacious start is followed by some uneven pacing, an extremely slow burning and thin narrative and some all-out misogyny.
There are two aspects about Only God Forgives that are particularly troubling- the uneven tone of the film and the all-out nastiness of the narrative. Fans of Gosling in ultra-sap-fest The Notebook will be openly weeping at the horror of the prostitute-abusing monster on screen, and that is maybe a calculated move on his part. This is not the feminist, shirtless Ryan Gosling of multiple memes, this is Gosling aiming to be SERIOUS ACTOR Gosling. Unfortunately he often comes across as if he has been to the Joey Tribbiani school of acting, with meaningful stares into the middle-distance coming across as looking a bit bored and wondering what he is going to have for dinner.
The depiction of women is a particularly disturbing aspect of the film, with women falling in to 2 camps- prostitutes or mothers. Some of the prostitutes get abused, others are treated like silent dolls, being asked to (literally) close their eyes to the horrors of the world around them. This weird juxtaposition is clearly fuelled by Julian’s (understandable) mummy-issues and Chang’s protection of his own daughter, but results in a messy, charicatured view of women.
Now the men of the film are no better off, with most ending up bloodied and brutalised through some almost unwatchable violence, all punctuated with judicious use of the Inception button. What should be an interesting exercise in silence and noise often comes across as heavy handed, signposting the audience to tension which isn’t manifested in the lazy visuals. The whole film feels like it was trying to be a homage to Blue Velvet, but is closer in tone to the extreme horror of Martyrs or Baise-Moi. Worst of all, it’s boring. The narrative moves so slowly, with Winding-Refn taking about 5 minutes for characters to walk across a room.
Like Thomas Hobbes view on life, this film is poor, nasty and brutish, but sadly not short.
1 out of 5