Only God Forgives
In 2011, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was released in theaters nearby and hit me like the ton-of-bricks, tour-de-force like it was. It’s rare that I ever attend more than one screening of a film but I made an effort to see Drive three times while I had the chance. It’s been two years now, but reading what I wrote after my second viewing reminded me of the intense emotional reaction I had. There was a raw energy produced by director and leading man that can’t be denied. Only God Forgives paired the two once again, making it impossible not to compare the two, even when it shows Only God to be found wanting.
Gosling’s character is given a name this time, Julian. He and his brother Billy run a boxing gym in Thailand, a front for a massive drug smuggling operation. When Billy rapes and murders a 16-year-old prostitute, a local vigilante named Chang brings him to justice. Enter Billy and Julian’s mother Crystal, Kristin Scott Thomas, a drug lord and terrifying woman. She comes to Thailand to claim her oldest son’s body and to demand Julian bring the heads of those responsible for Billy’s death to her on a platter.
There was a conscious choice to sacrifice pacing for style, mood for narrative cohesion and relatable characters. This gamble may have paid off if there wasn’t so much demanded of the viewer. Not only is an absorbent level of patience called for, but Refn’s audience is expected to endure copious amounts of gore, far beyond that of Drive. The resulting product ends up with far too much depravity and no redeeming excuses for its amoral themes.
Attention must be drawn to Scott Thomas’s performance as Julian’s mother. Not since Animal Kingdom have I witnessed a matriarch so sinister and psychopathic. Even her incredible performance, however, couldn’t breathe life into this script full of unlikable characters impossible to crack. The film’s pretensions are its downfall, and ultimately, Only God Forgives is a failure. A beautiful, boring failure. And while I bought Drive the first chance I had, this film is certainly not something I’d want to keep around on DVD.