‘Only God Forgives’: Only He could

July 18, 2013

god forgives

Everything that I loved about Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film, “Drive,” all the things that I found immediate and evocative – those are all the things that struck me as wrong-headed, self-indulgent and pretentious in his newest, already much-vilified “Only God Forgives.”

Working once again with a nearly silent Ryan Gosling, Refn sketches a story about a pair of brothers – Julian (Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke) – living in Bangkok, managing fighters in the muy-thai underground which is a cover for their drug-smuggling racket. But Billy is an animal, who goes looking for a 14-year-old prostitute one night, then carves her into pieces.

Instead of arresting him, the head cop in charge of the investigation, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), brings in the girl’s father, gives him a knife and lets him carve the killer up in similar fashion (then chops his hand off to, I guess, restore balance to the universe).

Which provokes the brothers’ mother, Jenna (Kristin Scott Thomas), to come to town and goad her surviving son into action. She’s a drug kingpin who also believes in revenge.

The rest of the film is a stylized showdown of sorts, an eye for an eye – or a hand for a hand. Chang is a karaoke-singing stoic who wields a short samurai sword like a surgeon and fights like Tony Jaa. Each time Julian sends his men out to exact some sort of retribution, they inevitably wind up on the wrong end of Chang’s sword. When Julian himself faces off with Chang – hand to hand – Chang beats the crap out of him.

So “Only God Forgives” is a reverse of “Drive,” also a revenge film. Gosling plays the same silent figure, who speaks when spoken to and very little at that. But where his taciturn pose disguised a man of action with hidden skills, the construct here is of a man with no game whatsoever, forced to look within to confront his enemies – only to find that he’s coming up distinctly short.

Refn uses the same torpid pace as in “Drive” and the same insistently droning Cliff Martinez soundtrack; the two seem almost interchangeable. But where there was something compelling bubbling beneath the surface of “Drive,” “Only God Survives” seems to be only about the surface: all style with very little behind it.

Gosling gives virtually the same performance as in “Drive,” which reveals its seams and shortcomings. Silence only goes so far as character development; in this case, it’s not nearly far enough.

Refn’s deliberate approach can be effective but it doesn’t work here. Even if you were a fan of “Drive” and its extremes – even if you have the patience to wait for the gruesomely graphic violence – “Only God Forgives” comes up distinctly short.

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