Only God Forgives
Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling fail to repeat the success of Drive
With previous features such as Bronson and Drive, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has proven himself adept at engaging with and exploring the nature and seductive appeal of cinematic violence. While his latest feature Only God Forgives sees him return to familiar territory and visual style, it retains none of the cine-literateness or emotional punch of his prior work.
The film is certainly lavish to behold (although set in Bangkok, its world is more of a neon-lit, hazy dreamscape than a definitive place), but it contains negligible substance. Winding Refn has claimed that the central protagonist Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a kind of sleepwalker, a man crippled by his inability to act in response to his brother’s murder and his mother’s (Kristin Scott Thomas as you have never seen her before) brutal, sadistic and sexually inflected recriminations.
Clearly, Refn’s intention is that the film takes the viewer into the heart of a dark Oedipal nightmare from which Julian is trying to escape. This idea is an interesting (if somewhat hackneyed) one, but fails to translate onto screen, making it nearly impossible to attribute anything like an existential or ethical dimension to the main figure’s actions.
Unfortunately, this ambivalence infects everything in the film from the incoherent storyline to Larry Smith’s rambling cinematography. Smith’s work on Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is a clear reference point in Refn’s film and while the camera’s aimless journeying evokes some of that film’s alternate reality, it fails to create anything like the sickening suspense of a film like The Shining.
Much has been made of the film’s excruciating scenes of violence and implied misogyny and Refn does seem to revel in a kind of unnecessarily macho viciousness here, but these issues are the least of the film’s myriad problems: for instance, the film’s script (or what there is of it) is so utterly risible that once the characters do start talking, one wishes they had not bothered. Undoubtedly this makes the viewing process laboured, but the fact that the film is simply dull also makes watching it a chore.
Limited release from Fri 2 Aug.