Zimbio Review - Ryan Gosling Flops in Bloody Noir 'Only God Forgives'

The Bottom Line
Should you see it?

Despite being emotionally empty, Refn's latest carries an imminent dread that many horror films wish they could conjure.
The intensity boiling under the surface of Nicolas Winding Refn's (Drive, Valhalla Rising) Only God Forgives rivals any horror film made this year. It's a love letter to violence, Refn's vaunted fetish. The writer/director dispatches with narrative and dialogue, and creates a fever dream that's visually spectacular, but intellectually empty.

Refn's film has the look of noir and David Lynch, but his story isn't worthy of his vision. Characters barely speak. They stare. They sing karaoke, but do they live and breathe? The only proof anyone is alive in this perpetual night time is the blood that comes gushing out of open wounds. Refn does love a good open wound.

Refn also loves making cool movies. He seems obsessed with it here. The title credits flash in neon Thai and his star, Ryan Gosling, is introduced veiled in shadow. Every frame is fantastically realized with prolific artistic intention. The symmetry, color, and score (by Cliff Martinez) all speak to the director's higher purpose. The art direction particularly stands out (gold-foil wallpaper backdrops, statues imitating life), creating a vivid portrait of a city (Bangkok) that comes alive after hours in the darkness.

It's hard to dispute Refn's status as a true auteur, but his storytelling could use some help. Gosling plays Julian, a kickboxer who runs a gym with his brother Billy (Tom Burke) as a front for their drug dealing. Billy is pond scum, trolling brothels at night for underage girls, even urging owners to bring their daughters in for him. He kills a 16-year-old and, at the suggestion of the law, her father kills Billy.

The law is Only God Forgives' invincible terror, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a local police chief whose calm demeanor masks a rumbling ferocity. Chang watches everything behind hollow eyes. He's the Anton Chigurh of Only God Forgives, the kind of evil force that transcends violence because he is violence—living and breathing.

He's also God, or at least, God of this world. His "forgiveness" comes at a price. The Bible says as much. "Everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins."

Seeking revenge for her elder son's murder, the drug queenpin Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives and demands Julian find the man responsible. She's a different kind of evil, done up like a Cruella de Vil/Donatella Versace hybrid and possessing a sewer of a mouth only a son could love. It's a vulgar femme fatale performance and Thomas revels in the pulp of the character, the most lurid in cinema since Killer Joe last year.

Mommie Dearest chastises Julian for not taking action yet, but son number two reveals he thinks Billy got what he deserved. "He raped and killed a girl." He tells her. Mom's reaction? "He probably had his reasons." The Oedipal undertones of the relationship are also rampant, but we never learn more about Julian, Billy, or Crystal's background. They simply are this way. Julian explains why he tolerates his mother's abuse pragmatically. "Because she's my mother."

Crystal's ugliness and Julian's frustrating passivity come across but they aren't fully-sketched characters. They're essentially no more or less important than the wallpaper. Their actions aren't viscerally engaging because they don't seem human. Gosling is stone-faced throughout the story and barely has 10 lines. The lack of humanity stands in contrast to classics like Pickpocket or Taxi Driver, both of which succeed in eliciting sympathy from the audience despite their main characters' immorality. Those films also used interior monologues as a window to the soul. Only God Forgives could use a little soul.

Since we don't identify with anyone, Refn's incredible sequences of violence don't have the impact they should. Everything seems rehearsed. The actors are frozen in time in many scenes, super-glued to their marks like the statues decorating the sets. Gosling's performance is the most baffling. He emits no charisma, no depth of feeling at all. When he's beaten by Chang in a boxing match, the only evidence of pain is his battered face.

Refn's past work has always been marked by a heightened sense of reality. Only God Forgives, as an elemental conflict, seems like a natural canvas to continue this theme. Refn definitely creates a gorgeous, dream-like world that's seductively dangerous. He uses Martinez's score to up the ante on each violent sequence until Julian faces Chang, the final boss. But the director needs real characters for us to identify with. They should exist within the fantastic scenery, not become a part of it.

Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.