Written & Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
“Drive” (2011), the first collaboration between director Refn and star Gosling, was stylish, violent and, despite a number of gruesome interludes, a thoroughly watchable effort, distinguished by superb performances from its supporting players.
With “Only God Forgives” the duo have ramped up the nastiness and, judging from the mixed reviews and rather hostile reception it received when the movie was screened at Cannes, not everyone approves.
My question for Mr. Refn is, what’s with these non-communicative, brutal, conscienceless central characters? Julian, as portrayed by Gosling, seems like little more than the Driver transplanted to Bangkok and saddled with a bitch mother.
Kristin Scott Thomas is sublime as the bitch mother in question. Hard to believe this is same willowy, feather light actress who barely registered in “The English Patient”. Gwyneth Paltrow with a shorter neck. How she must have relished playing such a vile villainess, a woman capable of performing an epidermal peel with a few well-chosen (mostly unprintable) words. From the moment she presents herself at the front desk of a swank hotel and proceeds to devour the staff, feet and all, we realize we are dealing with an individual of enormous power. A primal being.
But in terms of sheer menace, the laurels deservedly go to Vithaya Pansringarm as Chang, a Bangkok cop with his own take on the problems of crime and punishment. Like Gosling, Pansringarm rarely betrays even a flicker of emotion, but in many respects by the end of the film I felt I understood his character far more than Gosling’s. Chang’s cool, impassive exterior conceals a dark, retributive spirit. He seems to exist outside the boundaries of space and time, a presence hovering over the teeming city, refusing to be cowed by the evil that men do. He possesses his own kind of morality, a certainty others might confuse with fanaticism. It’s rough justice but it is justice, of sorts; the innocent have little to fear at his hands.
Refn’s films are beautifully lit, scrupulously framed, staged and edited. But I think he’ll continue to (mostly) fail to connect with movie-goers because his projects lack a central core, a human quality that, at the very least, gives us an emotional investment in what’s taking place on screen. We don’t have to like a character but we do need someone/something to root for and there, I think, he can fairly be accused of dropping the ball.
Julian, as realized by Gosling, is a man irredeemably damaged by his mother, to the extent that he cannot enjoy healthy relations with anyone, existing in a savage, men’s only atmosphere, his strange appetites sated by sudden explosions of violence and sexless encounters with Thai prostitutes. Seen in that context, he should provoke our sympathy, yet Refn and Gosling conspire to deny us that privilege. They sabotage any possibility of understanding or comprehension, any opportunity to let us inside—thus, Julian makes little impact on us, flitting, ghost-like, from one encounter to the next, egged on by mommy dearest, giving us no clue as to his motivations, no indication of what (if anything) is going on behind his eyes, that slow, unblinking gaze.
Julian remains an enigma from beginning to end and so we can only sit idly by, passively bearing witness to his sordid life…while caring, truth be told, not one whit.
ΩΩΩ1/2 (out of 5)
Postscript: “Only God Forgives” is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowski. Those who have seen “Santa Sangre” (in particular) will quickly discern why the tribute is appropriate. Whether or not Refn is A.J.’s “spiritual son” is debatable, but the two directors certainly share a soft spot for ultra violence…and a talent for provoking outrage.