After Nicholas Winding Refn’s last critic-dividing offering Drive, we approach his new film Only God Forgives with a kind of hesitant excitement. Being a Drive fan, this film has been on my mental ‘must-watch list’ for a while.
While Only God Forgives is certainly more unashamedly arthouse than Drive it maintains the same bare dialogue and attention to detail that marked Drive out as something out of the ordinary. So the dialogue is sparse (and that is perhaps a tentative way to phrase it); Ryan Gosling as Julian (the film’s poster boy) has only 17 lines . . . in the entire film!! While the other actors fare better in the line tally, the film plays heavily on the strength of Cliff Martinez’s soaring score which pulls the films along its increasingly dark and violent course. The score plays unrelentingly over the silent screams of many a victim of the films vengeful plot, creating a brilliantly detached feel as the characters shout in Thai with their pleas unheard by the audience or the unrelenting vigilante cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).
Kristen Scott-Thomas steals the show as Crystal, a feisty American ‘mom’ who comes to Bangkok in order to avenge the death of her drug dealer son (Tom Burke). With a harder exterior than we are used to she drives the films plot, and is perhaps the only character we really get to know well. That is the films main flaw; the lack of dialogue restricts the level to which we can connect with the characters. While Ryan Gosling eyes are lovely, there are levels of emotion even he struggles to convey with a simple look and head tilt. While Drive’s simple, cut back script threw an element of arthouse into a fairly mainstream movie Refn may have taken it a little far this time. There is a danger that the lengthy, sometimes uncomfortable silences will alienate the viewer, especially those expecting a Tarantino-esque Samuri film.
Only God Forgives is beautiful to watch, every shot is brilliantly thought through and the violence is extensive but not all pervasive. It certainly justifies its 18 certificate with some ‘interrogation’ scenes that are not for the faint hearted. And while Refn has claimed, “most of the violence is implied” there are most certainly some toe curling moments in there.
This is not what you would call an enjoyable movie. It makes you think and it gives you some wonderful and terrible images to take away with you, but the stripped down script affects the plot in a way no amount of beautiful cityscapes and sleazy brothels can counter. While the cinematography is no less than epic, there is something lacking in the development of the characters that detracts irretrievably from the film.
Written by Charlotte Keeys who also blogs at Jackanory Reviews. Twitter: @jackanoryreviews.