Only God Forgives, 2013.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringam, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam and Tom Burke.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s eagerly anticipated Only God Forgives tells the story of an American outlaw Julian (Ryan Gosling) holed up in a Bangkok boxing club run by his brother Billy (Tom Burke). But Billy is a psychopath, whose pleasure is sex with young girls and acts of extreme violence. When Billy goes a step too far, murdering a 16-year-old prostitute, the police chief involved in the case, inspector Chang (Vithaya Pansringam), allows the girl’s father to mete out his own justice. It is then up to Chang to deliver his own brand of punishment on the father for putting his daughter on the street. Unsheathing a sword concealed under the back of his shirt, he slices off the man’s forearm. And thus this violent and baffling film gets underway.
Though Billy and Julian have been running a boxing club, this is merely a front for a large-scale drug dealing operation. The head of this multinational drug running is none other than the men’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). Scott Thomas has undergone something of a transformation for this film, looking like a pale and beautiful Donatella Versace. Crystal is ruthless, bent on avenging her beloved boy’s murder and appalled at Julian’s reluctance to murder his brother’s killer. When Julian points out that Billy had raped and murdered the man’s daughter, Crystal responds, “I’m sure he had his reasons”. She worshipped her dead son and her relationship with both boys has strong sexual overtones. The fact that Julian killed his father underscores the Oedipal undertones.
Kristen Scott Thomas’ performance is the absolute highlight of the film. Sadly, there is too little of her. There is a lot of Ryan Gosling, once again playing a staring, quasi-silent man with an undercurrent of menace. After Drive, in which his silent, enigmatic character worked so well, here the audience feels frustrated with him. In the one scene that he raises his voice, he sounds like a petulant child more than a ruthless and troubled man. His dysfunctional relationship with his mother, who has forced him into so many corners and who treats him with such disdain, is not acknowledged with even a vague change of expression or tone. Whether this was a directorial choice or Gosling’s lack of range is not clear.
Other positive elements are Refn’s lush and beautifully lit cinematography. The original score is also a treat. So the film looks good and it sounds good, but is it actually good? The problem is that Refn doesn’t seem to know how he wants to play this film. It might have worked better as a Machete-type movie relishing in the OTT gore and violence. Yet Refn still wants to maintain an arthouse aesthetic and mood. We have endless scenes of corridors and Thai prostitutes that bring nothing to the story and just slow down what feels a long film, although it comes in at 90 minutes. In this it is not unlike Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty: a masterfully crafted piece of cinema that leaves the audience wishing they had had something more.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★
Jo Ann Titmarsh