Only God Forgives? Well, I won’t

The latest Nicolas Winding Refn / Ryan Gosling outing is unforgivably bad.

Graham Barnfield

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In recent years, Nicolas Winding Refn has become one of that elite group of directors whose very name generates a frisson of excitement when it’s attached to a new project. Before the release, the trailers are pored over, and the BBC’s Talking Movies will go out of its way to interview cast and crew. 

Refn’s standing owes much to brutal 1990s genre pictures like Bleeder (1999) and the Pusher trilogy (1996-2005), which, if nothing else, conveyed a sense of the frailty of the figures in and around the criminal underworld far better than the ‘new French extremity’ films appearing at the same time. 

His own Bronson (2008), a biopic of ‘Britain’s most violent prisoner’, was positioned as a laddish Brit-pack movie, but its artistic exploration of the nature of performance and celebrity was somewhat confusing. By directing rising Hollywood power Ryan Gosling in Drive (2011), adapted from the James Sallis novel, Refn made its low-key protagonist look effortlessly cool against a neon noir backdrop.

It would be easy to read Only God Forgives as the anti-Drive. While the trademark violence is there in abundance – hence some of the booing at the Cannes film festival – Gosling’s character, Julian, is shown to be incompetent and indecisive. One reading of the title is that through his inconsistent displays of mercy, Julian manages to bring a storm of vengeance down on his criminal operation. Events unfold which, for all their blood and thunder, suggest that this is also a film about filmmaking. Aside from two quick surprise ambushes and an intimidated pimp, Julian fails to execute any of his nefarious activities with much success. It’s as if Refn wants to undermine the mythic Gosling figure – on a continuum with the existential protagonists of Bullitt (1968), Vanishing Point (1971) and The Driver (1978) – set up by his previous film. Just switch Drive’s anonymous driver’s competence for Julian’s self-indulgence and indecision to complete the reversal. 

This reading of the film is attractive, but it doesn’t square with the facts. Refn was a director-for-hire on Drive (as he was for his earlier Miss Marple TV movies), with Hugh Jackman originally cast as its star. Only God Forgives is a piece of auteurship by Refn, but he only recruited his muse Gosling after Luke Evans had become unavailable. Only God Forgives being the anti-Drive is just one of those nice coincidences that the industry throws up. 

Here is why Only God Forgives is ultimately forgettable. On the arthouse side, the right elements are there to bolster Refn’s personal vision (which he has admitted in interviews involves messing with audiences’ heads). The hellish Thai setting, reportedly based on scouted locations rather than sets, the beautiful end credits and use of real-time karaoke, buttressed by sub-industrial rock noises: all hallmarks of a cult film in the making. The occasional use of still-life tableaux, occasioned by various characters’ passivity, is less striking than those seen recently (at a fraction of the cost) in Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, but it all helps to station Gosling in the middle of a visual treat, complete with hallucinations.

The problem is that these elements come to the fore by eroding the film’s moorings in the crime genre. Granted, parts of the story trade on prurient Western perceptions of Bangkok as a city of police corruption and teen prostitutes. But the film’s premise, the sequence of events which permits the audio and visual treats to come to the fore, just doesn’t make sense. If a story is set in the criminal underworld, in Thailand or elsewhere, then surely that milieu should follow some sort of logic. We are expected to believe that Julian and older brother Billy (Tom Burke) are at the top of their game as dealers of opiates, but almost everything they do suggests a pair of top-class screw-ups.

Billy rapes and murders the obligatory teen prostitute, and is slain in return. When Julian connects legendary ‘Angel of Death’ Lt Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) to the killing, his response is to sit and brood. Of course, if Julian was really an American crime overlord in Thailand, it is likely he would have heard of Chang already. Next, Julian’s mother and love-object Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, channelling Cruella de Vil) flies into Bangkok, abusing the hotel staff and demanding Chang’s head on a plate. Again, Julian’s mother-love and complete subordination are at odds with his underworld reputation and success. Nevertheless, these unbelievable personal foibles remain compatible with rising to the apex of the Thai underworld (dealing cocaine and heroin out of a boxing club). Given the brothers’ ineptitude, the real surprise is that Chang hadn’t busted the duo years ago.

After a thankfully terse 87 minutes of silliness, someone should tell Refn he doesn’t need the crime story to realise his vision. He could even continue his flirtation with ‘new French extremity’ clichés – graphic sex, violent outbursts, conversations about life’s futility – with a series of gallery installations. That way, there would be no need to drag film audiences – and Bangkok – into his personal and predictably depraved visions.

Graham Barnfield blogs at The Loneliest Jukebox. He is the author of ‘A Hostel Environment: Sanitised Terror and the “Torture Porn” Cycle’ in Screens of Terror: Representations of War and Terrorism in Film and Television since 9/11, edited by Philip Hammond, and published by Abramis. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) 

View the trailer for Only God Forgives:

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