Canadian heartthrob of the moment Ryan Gosling is the least interesting thing in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives.
He plays Julian, the owner of a Muay Thai gym that serves as a front for him and his brother Billy’s (Tom Burke) drug smuggling ring. Gosling takes the McQueen-like neutrality of the central character of Refn’s Drive to new extremes. Seemingly in the grip of a terminal boredom, and looking as if he might pass wind at any moment, he substitutes any real acting for smouldering silence, and you can just about count upon your fingers the lines of dialogue he speaks throughout the film.
The similarly stony faced, but rather more menacing Billy seems a more compelling character altogether, even though he features only briefly in the beginning, as he brutally murders an underage prostitute, is found by the police, and then beaten to death by the girl’s father under the supervision of Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).
The film’s ultra-violence has been rightly described as ‘pornographic.’ Chang with his samurai sword acts as some invincible agent of justice and revenge, maiming and slicing his way through to the end. The cinematography itself seems saturated in blood red, and the neon lights bleed out onto the rain-sodden streets and back alleys of Bangkok, a city that lends itself beautifully to film noir.
The film brightens somewhat through the arrival of Julian’s mother, Crystal, in an eye-opening performance from Kristin Scott Thomas. Literally lighting up the screen, she is a platinum blonde, chain smoking, foul-mouthed fury of a woman – a sort of cross between Joan Collins, Donatella Versace and Lady Macbeth. She places a bounty on her son’s killer, and as the family dynamics emerge, it soon becomes clear why her sons are so messed up, and exactly why Julian is in self-imposed exile in Thailand.
Cliff Martinez, as he did for Drive, produces a suitably ambient and brooding score, and with its eternal tracking shots down long and lonely corridors and dark sidewalks, Only God Forgives recalls The Overlook Hotel of Kubrick’s The Shining. It pulsates and resonates with some primal menace as Refn tries to create a study in violence, or passion, or evil, or maybe all three, and certainly shows his worth – yes, it’s visually stunning, but passionless is exactly what it becomes. From Gosling’s passive nature (he’d rather watch his girlfriend Mai pleasure herself than bring himself to do it), to the resistance in forming a plot, Only God Forgives is a case of style over substance, an experiment in directing, but not in filmmaking.