The problem with Only God Forgives is that it was preceded by Drive, an exceptional film by the same writer-director (Nicholas Winding Refn) and same star (Ryan Gosling). Perhaps it isn’t fair, but directors are expected to progress with each movie, and so it was reasonable to assume that this film would be at least a spiritual descendant of Drive.
It was a pseudo-Freudian ode to Jodorowsky. It throws away narrative, character and coherence in exchange for beautifully shot if ill-defined symbolism.
Previously, Refn has created impressive protagonists, even going back to the madman in Bronson, but here Gosling is Julian, a near mute, inscrutable drug smuggler being utterly dominated by his mother Crystal (played by an unrecognizable and entertaining Kristen Scott Thomas). She is there to avenge the death of his older brother, a mission she is unusually passionate about because their relationship was more than maternal. She also seems to be the only character that’s actually awake.
Their opponent is the nearly impassive and utterly unstoppable Chang, a policeman who tends to favor using a shortened sword on his victims. After he does something particularly awful he delicately sings karaoke, which is a nice touch. In the film he is the Angel of Death, and naturally the person that Crystal unsuccessfully attacks.
But the plot isn’t the point of this film; in fact this film does not try to engage its viewers. It is a film about sex, and incest, and emasculation and pretty much every other icky topic. Instead of being a shared experience with the audience it is a technical exercise. As such, its impressive, the lighting evokes Mario Bava, and Refn knows his way around a camera.
But Only God Forgives doesn’t give us a reason to care about anyone. The characters are all ciphers or caricatures. I’m sure it’s a very deep movie, and that for some film students it’s a revelation. But following a film as engaging and moving as Drive, it’s a massive disappointment. It feels like Refn tasted some success and immediately retreated into making another “art” film. After all, those films are cool. Everyone says they’re deep. Everyone talks about how smart you are. Anyone critical of your work can simply be dismissed as a Philistine. And provoking any response can be considered success.
But making a coherent, subtle, gripping film like Drive or Bronson IS an art and not many people are doing it. Only God Forgives is more of a tantrum than a film. Let’s hope the fit ends here.