Nicolas Winding Refn’s films have polarised viewers and critics alike since he burst onto the scene with Pusher back in 1996. His films are often violent and he has an artistic sensibility that pushes his pictures towards the “art-house” side of cinema. Sometimes it works (Bronson, Drive) and sometimes it just doesn’t (Fear X). Only Gold Forgives, his second film with Ryan Gosling in the lead, falls head-first into the latter.
The simple plot is straight out of an old-school revenge flick. Julian (Gosling) is a drug-dealer working with his brother in Bangkok, Thailand. When his brother is murdered after brutally killing an underage prostitute, Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives and begins to pressure him into seeking revenge. The hell Crystal begins to raise puts them on a collision course with Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a ruthless man who has his own violent sense of judgement.
Sigh. Okay… to put it simply, Only God Forgives is a bad film. Let me start with the minor points that attempt to redeem this pretentious piece of cinema. The cinematography and art design is certainly impressive – even beautiful. Refn’s camera captures some wonderfully lit, gorgeously designed and interestingly framed shots. No question – he can craft a fascinating frame and a gorgeously-filmed sequence; if only it appeared like he was thinking of the film as a whole.
Only God Forgives is violent – very violent. Which is by no means a problem, although it is when it feels as though the barbarism on display is simply there as a superficial, attention-seeking factor. The carnage and brutality is unfortunately too dull for gore hounds, and the “depth” that could be found hits a punishingly pretentious wall almost immediately. The scatter-shot, snail-paced approach to the film makes the thriller elements a chore. There could be a kudo thrown in for trying to be… different (?), but in terms of screenplay, tone and structure, the film is incredibly frustrating.
It’s a movie that plays out as though there was a ten-page screenplay padded out to ninety-minute feature. We get dream-sequences, Lynch-esque attempts at metaphor and countless sequences without a word of dialogue. Refn certainly learned the “show don’t tell” rule from the Danish Film School he attended, but here it looks like he skipped the lesson on placing at least some depth behind what you do show. That being said, there may be those that find subtext or see a moral study of some kind in Gosling’s sleep-walking brooder. After all, anyone can throw paint, or blood, in this case, on a canvas and call it art.
Gosling fans needn’t sign on either. Whatever subtext Gosling is attempting to work with or whatever the inspiration may be, ‘dull’ is the key-word to describe our lead performance. Kristin Scott Thomas’ Crystal is thankfully a little more of an interesting presence, and the Oscar-nominated actress is quite good as the tough-as-nails gang mother. Her scenes are easily the film’s most interesting. Also worthy of a mention is Vithaya Pansringarm, who provides us with a malevolent, creepy presence whenever he’s on screen. And this bad guy sings karaoke – a lot of it, for some reason.
Pretentiousness isn’t a terrible sin in the world of cinema, but a laughable sense of self-reverence and importance is. Only God Forgives is the cinematic equivalent of someone giving you a box wrapped in beautiful packaging – only it’s empty, and that person punches you in the face.