When moviegoers are split down the middle, it usually leads to a large amount of interesting debates. A great example would be 2011's Drive. I personally found it to be one of the best motion pictures to be released that year, but numerous viewers hated it. They called it empty and dull, which I completely disagree with. All eyes were on writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn ever since his newest movie was announced. My anticipation increased, since he would be teaming up with star Ryan Gosling again. I was eager to see his follow-up, but I tried to keep my mind free of high expectations. In fact, I even stayed away from all trailers and clips, since I wanted to go into this one "blind." Even though I'm a complete sucker for arthouse cinema, this remains to be a disappointing follow-up with a severe lack of power.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a drug-smuggler who owns a boxing ring as a cover. His business thrives in Bangkok's criminal underworld. However, his life becomes even more complicated when his brother is murdered after committing a horrific crime. His mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) travels to Julian in order to convince him to kill whoever is responsible for his brother's recent death. This thirst for revenge ultimately puts him in a dangerous situation where even one wrong move can result in death.
Nicolas Winding Refn has proven how skillful he is as a director in his previous motion picture, but his writing leaves a lot to be desired. He didn't write Drive, but his screenplay is ultimately one of the biggest issues in Only God Forgives. He clearly has some phenomenal ideas, but he disappoints when he's faced with the task of putting them down on paper. Refn had several goals in mind while creating this movie, which are most certainly conveyed in the final product. He wanted to blend a couple different genres through different acts of the film. It starts as a crime thriller, but it twists and turns into a revenge flick. Nicolas Winding Refn has drawn quite a bit of inspiration from Greek tragedies. This fantastic idea allowed these themes to make their way into a modern setting within Bangkok. This is an example of a filmmaker with a lot of great concepts, but perhaps he shouldn't write his own projects.
If you said that the majority of the narrative is expressed through the dialogue, then you'd be mistaken. The audience doesn't get the opportunity to listen to very many conversations that take place. The silence is sometimes used in wonderful ways, but it begins to feel repetitive. This ultimately makes these scenes lose their impact. The narrative itself has some intriguing metaphors and symbolism, but it has substantial flaws that are impossible to simply brush off. The film focuses too heavily on these long pauses of silence, which ultimately feels a lot more like filler than actual content. Refn understands how to build tension, as he does a great job with this through the first act. However, the anticipation soon transforms into irritation. It talks the talk, but it never truly walks the walk. The closest it gets to causing any reaction is through its use of violence. Only God Forgives has a few brutal scenes, but none of it comes close to the shock delivered from the elevator scene in this filmmaker's previous feature.
The biggest issue I have with Only God Forgives is how disconnected it feels. It rarely comes across as a cohesive narrative, since this is essentially a cat-and-mouse game where the table continues to turn over and over again. However, the dynamics aren't very memorable. As a moviegoer, it's quite frustrating to be held at such a distance. We never learn very much about any of the characters, making it almost impossible to care about their fate. The closest we get to any of these characters is when Julian retreats back into his mind and has surreal visions. Otherwise, the roles come across as being far too small. Drive holds us at a distance as well, but at least it made me care about what was going on. This motion picture fails at delivering the dread that it tries so hard to get across.
Given the name of the creator, this picture would surely receive a talented cast. Ryan Gosling has returned to work with writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn. He's an outstanding actor who can play a wide variety of characters to perfection. If you thought that he was reserved in Drive, then you'll be shocked by how quiet he is in this picture. Gosling doesn't ever get the chance to bring much to this role, but his looks never fail to please. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Julian's mother, Crystal. Thomas has the most amount of dialogue and she does an exceptional job. While there isn't a lot to this role, she does deliver the material very well. Vithaya Pansringarm doesn't have a lot of experience in the film industry, but his performance is quite unpredictable as Chang, which is always welcome in the film industry. Refn has a marvelous cast, but he doesn't give them a lot to play with.
Only God Forgives can most certainly be seen as having style over substance. Unsurprisingly, Refn has delivered a stunning atmosphere. There's a lot of neon red in the color palette, as this director clearly enjoys playing with the contrast between the neon colors amongst shadows and darkness. The cinematography is brilliant, as it represents the material extremely well. Audiences will surely comment on the film's brutality. All of it looks quite real and the visual symbolism is spot on. A lot of directors strive for this tone, but they don't all succeed. This happens to be the feature's most powerful asset, since the majority of the plot and the symbolism can be found within the visual design.
This motion picture had a large amount of potential to be quite a powerful moviegoing experience. The acting is strong, especially given the fact that there isn't a lot of material for them to work with. Unfortunately, I found the film to be far too disconnected from itself and the audience. Due to the lack of cohesion, it's difficult to care about anything that's going on. Writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn had some unique ideas, but something went wrong when he applied pen to paper. Only God Forgives has impeccable visuals and some cool concepts, but that doesn't make a great film. If you're researching cinematography, then this is worth taking notes on. Otherwise, it simply isn't worth seeing at all. Coming from an arthouse cinema-lover, this is an absolute letdown.