Writer/Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Stars: Ryan Gosling (Julian), Kristin Scott Thomas (Crystal), Vithaya Pansringarm (Chang) and Tom Burke (Billy)
Bangkok. Night. Kickboxing Match. As one match ends Julian (Ryan Gosling) leans and whispers to the fighter of the next match. He glances across the crowd to the other Americans across the way and nods. One of the two acknowledges Julian and passes cash to one of the Thai and it gets passed to the right person. After the match behind a masonry decorative screen the fighter, two Americans, and Julian gather. Billy (Tom Burke), Julian’s brother, hands the boxer cash before he is excused.
That same night Billy enters a brothel and asks for a fourteen year old girl. The manager has none. Billy then asks if the manager has a daughter and if he is willing to sell her for the night. Billy and the manager get into an altercation. Later Billy hires a prostitute on the street and takes her up to the available apartment in her working building.
Siren. Flashing Lights. Police Cars. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) a chief detective arrives to the same street and building where Billy is at; other uniformed police officers are present. They take him up to the apartment where they show Chang the bloodied and mutilated body of the prostitute, and Billy sitting on the bed staring out the window covered in blood.
Chang brings the father of the murdered prostitute to the crime scene and allows him time alone with Billy to do what needs to be done.
Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), Julian’s and Billy’s mother, arrives at a five-star hotel in Bangkok. She asks Julian if Billy’s murderer has been taken care of? He says, “it’s complicated.”
Like Drive, the previous Refn/Gosling collaboration, before it, Only God Forgives aims to tell a compelling story with minimal dialogue through the use of acting, music, and visuals. Unlike Drive it does not succeed.
Refn’s goal seemed to be to determine how much dialogue do you really need to tell a story and still have the audience follow it. The dialogue in the film probably equates to thirty pages in the script, with the Kristin Scott Thomas character realistically having half of it–most of that half delivered during one memorable dinner scene between Crystal, Julian, and the hooker he hired to join him. Though you eventually figure out what is going on, the journey is made difficult because we are privy to Julian’s dreams and yearnings, so in certain scenes you are not entirely sure who is actually there and where they actually are in relation to Julian.
Further failings in comparison to Drive is that there is no one to relate to or route for. The Driver was an anti-hero, but Julian is no such thing. The music, so excellent in Drive, is painfully absent for most of the film, with only a few moments where it was allowed to shine.
The actors did what they could with what they were given. Gosling holds your attention on-screen and conveys Julian’s damaged spirit through his eyes, but there is something missing from the character. Pansringarm as Chang is not given anything to work with. He maintains the same demeanor and physicality throughout. The only actor allowed to shine is Thomas. She is unrecognizable as Crystal and delivers a bitch-on-heels performance for the ages.
The only completely favorable comparison to Drivethat can be made is in the visual look of the film. Larry Smith, the cinematographer, created visually stunning shots with great use of color, lighting, and staging. The film looks gorgeous.
But visuals alone and one stand-out performance do not make a great film. Only God Forgives feels longer than its ninety minutes and over stays its welcome.
Grade = C-