While the cinematography and lighting regularly highlights Gosling’s beautiful blue eyes, it isn’t enough to engage you on any truly meaningful level.
This is a film that concentrates far too heavily on insubstantial metaphor rather than characters, narrative and things of true resonance.
In contrast with ‘Drive’, Refn and Gosling’s last collaboration, ‘Only God Forgives’ is very much an art film, a film that’s sheer metaphor. They’re completely different.
The film focuses on Julian (Ryan Gosling), an American drug dealer operating in Thailand who is laconic in the extreme (he speaks just 22 lines according to the IMDb trivia section.) When his sordid brother Billy (Tom Burke) is killed by the father of the girl Billy has murdered, Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok seeking revenge. Her wrath brings her, Julian and their associates into the path of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), an ex-cop who displays God-like abilities.
The characters are incredibly bland, as are their relationships and indeed the film itself. Its attempts at depth comprise blatant Oedipal elements that are both unoriginal and uninteresting. However seeing Kristin Scott Thomson remark about heartthrob Gosling’s inferior penis size at the dinner table is quite amusing.
The behaviour of the characters made me cringe; watching Julian and particularly Chang robotically saunter along while sporting their best moody poses became plain embarrassing after a while. Whenever a character strung a few sentences together I breathed a sigh of relief; although no line in Refn’s script is of any value, it was a welcomed development every time the suffocatingly absurd lack of dialogue was broken.
What’s even duller are its themes of religion and redemption. The irritating Chang is apparently the omnipotent moral arbiter of Bangkok, apparently he is ‘God’, whatever that means. I just thought he was a portentous prat.
Then there is the problem of the film’s violence. The violence in ‘Drive’ was explosive and shocking, it gave the film energy; it informed you of both the sheer danger of the situation and The Driver’s disconcerting readiness for extreme retaliation. In ‘Only God Forgives’ however, Refn’s violence is protracted, gratuitous and, like other areas of the film, ultimately embarrassing. Refn has admitted that he is a ‘pornographer’, and the film’s main moment of violence, a lengthy and vicious torture scene, is certainly testament to that.
‘Only God Forgives’ tries to be profound, however it doesn’t really mean anything. There is nothing real about it, it simply doesn’t resonate; the only modicum of empathy I began to experience during the film was for Julian and his complicated, broken relationships with women.
Apart from making you feel uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons, the film just does not affect. This is because the film is sheer metaphor. Symbolism and ambiguity can be very interesting and powerful, but this is usually when it is combined with good acting, strong narrative and credible, interesting characters. Unfortunately, ‘Only God Forgives’ lacks all of this.