*At Kyra’s suggestion, I’m adding a new indicator to the movie reviews so you know, well, that I’m reviewing a movie. I didn’t want to just write “Review:” because, fuck it, I like puns, and this one is kinda sports-oriented. Anyway, I’m gonna try it out.
Did you love Drive? I loved everything about Drive. It was violent, eerie, slick, suspenseful, mysterious, and nuanced, this latter quality owing much to the supporting work of Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston—more on the two of them below. Will you love Only God Forgives? I have no fucking clue, but it is helmed by the same director behind Drive‘s artistic and aesthetic vision, Nicolas Winding Refn. And it does star Ryan Gosling, who, believe or not, utters fewer lines of dialogue than in Drive. And there is blood. Plenty of blood. Well, I HATED Only God Forgives. It was dark and violent but also campy, soporific, and embarrassingly shallow, mistaking all those neon lights for indicators of substance rather than style and nothing more. Colors set the tone, but Only God Forgives is all tone, and it is fucking tedious, despite its under-ninety-minute running time. (You’d guess it were two and a half hours, believe me.) It is a stupid, boring movie—I laughed at it, and I wanted my money back. (Because movie tickets are absurdly expensive after all.) A few more lines of dialogue from Gosling wouldn’t have saved it. A Thai cop singing karaoke multiple times most definitely did not, either. In his latest film, Refn has captured only one fraction of what made Drive so effective—he has forgotten how to hold sequences in any measure of suspense, and he assumes that anything unexplained must automatically qualify as enigmatic.
To show what little enigma exists, let’s start with Gosling’s character, Julian, like The Driver another silent savage; here he operates a muay thai boxing gym that doubles as a drug front. Julian floats through the Bangkok underworld of gyms, dark clubs, and whorehouses, and it’s at one of the latter where his brother brutally murders a child prostitute. The prostitute’s father receives permission from a strange katana-wielding policeman (Vithaya Pansringarm) to exact revenge on Julian’s sadistic sibling; Julian’s wicked mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) arrives on scene to collect the body and command Julian to carry out his own reprisal against Det. Sword Man. Because Julian almost never speaks, you’re left to determine his psychological make-up from what everybody else projects onto him. But the only two characters who really speak in the film are his mother and his brother, who are both complete lunatics. Thus, Julian has no mystery, because his whole story comes to the fore when his brother decides to rape and kill a hooker and his mom shows up to boss him around. Julian has mommy issues and brother issues, and he’s fucked up. Unlike The Driver, Julian’s motivations are all external; Julian is The Driver’s reverse, having no autonomy. With Julian doing precious little thinking and acting for himself, there’s no wonder about what drives him. (See what I did there?) Silence does not equal mystery.
Let’s continue with Pansringarm’s detective, who engages in less detective work than killing and karaoke singing—karaoke is his way of blowing off steam after a kill. At least it sounds weirdly intriguing, right? From my perspective, Refn blew it. Refn stages the scene with all the excitement of watching grass grow: long silence, Pansringarm trudging slowly towards the stage, a lengthy pause before the music kicks in, Pansringarm belting out some Thai yodel while the small audience sits stonefaced, unmoved. With a snappier pace, this scene takes on a perverse humor. With Refn’s stacatto pacing—long voiceless sequences punctuated by violence or profanity—it’s laughable, as in, “This is fucking stupid.” Strangeness does not equal perversity or dark humor.
Kristen Scott Thomas, too makes an appearance. To be fair, it’s more a failed attempt at performance art than an appearance—among her first words, no joke, are “cunt” and “cumdumpster.” Now, I’m as big a fan of curse words as any, and given that “fuck” and “shit” are more or less forceless words these days, I’m all for calculated deployment of obscenities like “cunt”; I know kyra’s with me in encouraging greater use of compound words like “cumdumpster” and “fuckface.” So, the point of Thomas’ character is to shock, but the effect is tryingly repetitive; all she does is curse, followed by more cursing. Refn makes no attempt at humor, so Thomas’ pungent dialogue also loses its force rather quickly, undermining her character’s entire purpose. Unlike some of Refn’s characters from Drive, Thomas’ is one-note; compare her to Cranston’s limping and vulnerable sycophant and Brooks’ menacing but restrained mastermind. Both Cranston and Brooks brought more to their backstories than a thirst for vengeance and both contained much more than anger, which gave their showdowns heft rather than camp. Like the Thai karaoke, Thomas could be a perverse enjoyment, but instead she’s just hammy and grows tiresome, which is probably the worst quality you could attribute to a character who curses frequently. Campyness does not equal provocation.
Only God Forgives plays out like an extended version of the slow-motion elevator sequence from Drive. Again, it sounds awesome, but you’ll regret thinking that you wanted to sit through an hour and a half of that. Refn should have remembered that Drive didn’t depend on the violence but depended on suspense; Drive‘s opening car chase scene was virtuoso in its subtlety and its assurance in handling such a sequence, surprisingly, without crashes or sustained high speeds. Consider too a later chase sequence, which (SPOILER ALERT) results in Christina Hendricks’ face exploding into a pulp. Sure, that chase’s finale is shocking—the proverbial bomb under the table goes off—but the result satisfies because Refn expertly set-up the sequence, which starts with a failed heist, but again, the focus is less on explosions or crashes. A few bombs go off in Only God Forgives, but you’ll have been expecting them when they come, because there’s no excitement to take you along for the ride in between. I’ll forgive you if you see this one, but I’m not going to forgive Refn for my fourteen bucks. Hopefully God will.