Forgivable, not unforgettable: a red light for Refn

The real star of Only God Forgives is its atmosphere: a pervasive undercurrent of malevolence and an ominous, reverberating bass. Minimalist rooms of the coolest blues and endless corridors with walls bathed in subdued crimson … and then the subtle chime of a perfectly formed blade as it is unsheathed in the shadows …

This is perhaps Nicholas Winding Refn’s most keenly- and widely-anticipated release outside of his native Denmark. It’s the Pusher director’s second collaboration with white-hot acting talent Ryan Gosling, following 2011’s Drive. With retro neon aesthetics and an achingly cool soundtrack, Drive was a genre-busting tour-de-force that earned Refn a global audience and a nod from Cannes Film Festival for best director. That film now has audiences salivating for this one, with the buzz around both Refn and Gosling louder than ever.

What plot there is to speak of, is fairly anaemic: Julian (Gosling) is an American ex-pat running a drug ring in Bangkok out of a grimy, labyrinthine boxing facility. One day, his psychotic older brother (Burke) goes on a sex-fuelled killing spree. Retribution comes swiftly, with Julian’s domineering mother (Scott Thomas) then arriving from the US to avenge the death of her eldest son. From this point on, Julian’s grip on reality and his ability to manage his environment slowly dissipates into a dizzying cycle of revenge and retaliation.

As with all Refn’s films, the director wrote this script – only Drive stands as the exception to the rule. As such, similarities between these two films are largely cosmetic. In Drive, Gosling played an all-American stunt driver who fell in love and landed himself in some unsavoury gangland business. His character may have been morally ambiguous, but here the heroism is  gone: Gosling’s Julian is the business, a silent, damaged, heroin-dealing loner, an emasculated ball of longing and loneliness with fists of granite.

Much to be expected from Refn, this is a violent affair. The director often cites Martin Scorsese’s Casino as a major influence, and like that film, Only God Forgives begins with two brothers, one quiet and contemplative, the other a hothead. The core difference between these directors is that Scorsese, despite using heavy depictions of violence, has a way of justifying the gore contextually, narratively and psychologically. This allows an audience to feel safe in Scorsese’s hands, while Refn takes an entirely different direction. He frequently talks about finding beauty in bloodshed and elevating violence to the level of art, his approach often lending a cartoon artifice to the violence. Refn’s playful inventiveness can at times appear adolescent, thus diminishing the overall impact. A central scene involving hairpins and a fruit knife only elevates the violence to a level of faintly silly.

Better moments come with Refn’s inventive use of sound. In one scene, for example, Julian demands to know why the man cowering at his feet has killed his brother. As one of his henchmen translates the Thai reply into English, Refn fades out the voices, allowing a minimal score to describe the landscape inside Julian’s head. Elsewhere, the dialogue throughout is admirably sparse but too often clumsy, hampering the admirable efforts of Gosling and Scott Thomas to add nuance where there is otherwise very little.

There’s a dedication at the end of the film to Chilean surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky, but the film’s best qualities, mood, music (Cliff Martinez again serves up a stunning synth score) and sound design owe much more to David Lynch, as with Drive. Sadly for Refn, the individual elements, while seductive, are like handsome flesh searching for a skeleton that never appears. We end up feeling very little for anything or anyone onscreen – and that is unforgivable.

Only God Forgives

Dir: Nicholas Winding Refn; Fr/USA/Thai/Dan thriller, 2013, 90 mins; Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Tom Burke, Rthatha Phongam

Premiered May 30
Playing nationwide

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