Written by Kristen Lopez
Before you ask, the answer is no; I didn’t believe Only God Forgives was going to be a sequel, or in any way connected, to Drive. Director Nicholas Winding Refn creates a visually arresting film, but in the process arrests the narrative and characters to the point of creating a movie entirely stillborn. In its brief runtime, despicable characters do despicable things with little rhyme or reason other than vengeance and it’s hard to sympathize with anyone considering there’s little depth to their motives other than that lonely term.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a drug smuggler by night and owner of a Thai boxing club by day. When his older brother is killed, Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives and demands the killer’s head.
Nicholas Winding Refn has never filmed anything short of exquisite, and every sequence in Only God Forgivesis composed for maximum beauty. The neon-tinged world where blood red soaks every scene (whether it’s the real stuff or lighting), give the cinematographer of this production a pat on the back. If this movie could be judged on beauty alone, it would get an A+. However, once you strip away the beauty there’s a vacant, ugly hole where the story and actors reside. The impetus for Julian’s revenge comes as a result of his brother’s death; his brother who we see asking for an underage girl to rape in a scene prior, and ends up succeeding with another little girl. Thankfully, Julian has a moral center and can’t kill the man who actually killed his brother.
I would have accepted Crystal as the villainous Lady Macbeth who believes her older son “had his reason,” but we never get to hear anything to make Julian the protagonist of the story. Gosling has a total of 17 lines throughout the entire production, and short of him writing out his thoughts on his body, there’s nothing to bond you to him as a person. To the average viewer, he’s a character who sleepwalks through the movie. At worst, Gosling believes he’s such an amazing actor he can convey all the necessary emotions by never lifting a finger. Sadly, as much as I enjoy looking at Gosling, his dull stare and fist clenching didn’t tell me anything about him, his life, or why I give a crap if he lives or dies.
The only actor who gives something resembling a performance is Scott Thomas, and even then you’re cringing at the smutty things coming out of her mouth. I would have enjoyed a story developing her and Julian’s obviously inappropriate relationship, but there are only a handful of scenes between the two, and Gosling never gives her anything to work with. As Crystal says horrible things, Julian is either so numb to events, or Gosling has just tuned her out. By the end, I was concerned about her welfare because she tries to engage with others. The last of the characters, the vigilant detective played by Vithaya Pansringarm, is well-done. You learn he has a family, an element he wants to save from the taint of the city, and in a small way he’s causing the audience to question the actual corruption inherent within Thai society (and by extension, the world itself). However, all of that is lessened by the three separate karaoke scenes he engages in. I realize karaoke is big in Asian communities, but it does nothing but remove the audience from the story, and never appears to be anything more than an inside joke.
The violence within the movie is realistic, and brutal. The final fight scene between Julian and Detective Chang is gruesome; by the end, you’re expecting Gosling’s face to look like hamburger meat. If you enjoyed the gruesomeness in Drive, it’s present here, but spread out over several scenes. Refn also pulls the camera back several times, probably to protect the audience’s stomach, but as a means of preventing reveling in the violence itself.
The Blu-ray audio and video is fantastic, particularly in the latter category. The colors are vibrant and as shocking to the eye as the blood it blends into. The audio did have a tendency to sound low, only to jump high when characters scream or guns go off, but I’m unsure how much of that could be my audio set-up. There’s a feature-length commentary with Refn that helps the viewer understand the movie’s various themes and the characters. At times, Refn falls into explaining the obvious, but he never does so consistently. There are also two interviews where he discusses filming in Thailand and genre films. Audiences who truly love this movie will want to watch the twelve shorts in the behind-the-scenes section. A lot of them felt like EPK footage, and several are less than a minute, but they’re good bite-sized chunks of information. There’s also a fun segment with composer Cliff Martinez where he discusses his work on the movie (and the Blu-ray includes links to free digital downloads to two of Martinez’s tracks used in the movie.
Overall, the Blu-ray presentation of Only God Forgives will be a must-own for fans of Refn and his work. As others have mentioned, if you’re expecting Drive 2, you’re in for serious disappointment. The movie is a quiet, meditative work about vice and vengeance, but there the absence of character development turns everything into an inside joke. I’m fine with not wanting to spoon-feed the audience, but Refn believes if he gives the audience next to nothing, they can figure it out. Sadly, I needed a path to guide me through this; instead, I was left with a muddy footprint called a movie.