When we left the very effective Nicolas Winding Refn-Ryan Gosling duet a year-and-a-half ago, after Drive (2011), we were surrounded by the violence of the last part of the film, but also seduced by the elegance and the sobriety of this highly original cinema, which paid a very personal tribute to Michael Mann’s film-making style.
Very slow, very silent and above all very red, this is how one may characterize the long prologue of Nicolas Winding Refn’s ninth film, a project he reportedly has been devoted to for years. Taking place in a Bangkok city with no Asian cliché absent – prostitution, boxing clubs, drugs, corrupt cops and karaoke – Only God Forgives (2013) details the rather complicated relationships between two brothers and their mother, all of them hiding their criminal business under cover of a boxing club. The older one, Billy (Tom Burke), a psychopath whose likeness to the young Orson Welles is underlined during a long close-up, slaughters a young Thai prostitute in a brothel. Chang (Vithaya Pansrigarm), the mysterious cop who apprehends him, gives him up to the young girl’s father, who kills him in an act of vengeance.
Enter the mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who arrives from the US to avenge of her favorite son’s death. The younger one, Julian (Ryan Gosling), while involved in illegal activities such as drug dealing, clandestine gambling nevertheless seems to have principles is reluctant when it comes to violence. From this point on, the film becomes a kind of face-off between two figures of evil, the feminine and totally perverse mother on the one hand, and the mysterious yet extremely cruel cop who killed her son on the other.
If Kristin Scott Thomas’s performance is impressive, revealing a blonde vulgarity that contrasts sharply with the icy kind of class she usually gives her characters, if her part is undoubtedly the most talkative, she unfortunately has to deal with impossible lines – such as during the dinner scene with Julian and his so-called girlfriend. She also has to assume caricature-style attributes, generally speaking, such as the ‘prophetic’ evening dress she wears in one of her first scenes.
Chang’s character may in fact be the most disconcerting and convincing, alternating between quiet karaoke scenes and ultraviolence, as if he had signed an enigmatic pact as a righter of wrongs. What about Ryan Gosling, with his Drive and his recently expressed wish to retire from the cinema industry? Julian’s part was not meant for him in the beginning, yet his recent weight as an actor has obviously resulted in turning Only God Forgives into a nice little earner for Gosling with numerous close-ups and slo-mos. In the process, however, it has seemingly appeared unnecessary to provide him with the opportunity to cope with proper dialogue – if Gosling does not confirm his intention to distance himself from acting, one may think he should at least urge his agent to find him parts in talking movies.
So, what remains of Only God Forgives in the final analysis? The lack of rhythm from which the film suffers makes the extreme violence almost unsustainable, which reaches a climax with a blood-and-thunder Oedipal denouement, whereas in Drive it seemed to be part of a meticulously constructed structure. There are long shots of blood red corridors after the fashion of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), insistent references to Buñuel and Lynch, a complete absence of emotion, while the atmosphere of the film is so packed with symbols that paradoxically the aesthetics that Winding Refn builds manage to be frosty and kitsch at the same time. The film leaves us dazed and relieved, yet disappointed not to have understood the intentions of an indisputably gifted and ambitious film director.