Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive”)
Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn (“Bronson”)
As much respect as a Danish filmmaker like Nicolas Winding Refn should earn for having the ambition to create something as polarizing and unique as the violent 2008 biopic “Bronson” with an unrecognizable Tom Hardy, and the 2011 art-house action film “Drive” with an always-smirking Ryan Gosling, there’s no reason any of his outings should ever be as purposeless and self-gratifying as “Only God Forgives.” Refn has made a movie for himself – a bizarre exercise in light, beautiful style and unnerving silence – and doesn’t seem to care if anyone else buys into the experience. Whether you enjoyed “Drive” on any level, “Only God Forgives” plays by its own set of absurd rules.
Reuniting with Gosling for the first time since “Drive,” Refn, who also wrote the screenplay, tells the story of Julian (Gosling), a drug dealer living in Bangkok who is coerced by his irritated mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to search out and kill the person responsible for his brother Billy’s (Tom Burke) death. The all-too-familiar revenge set up never becomes engaging as we watch Julian, playing some kind of modern-day samurai warrior, creeping through the Bangkok underworld like he was waking up at home at 3 a.m. to get a glass of water. If a giddy, child-like Gosling annoyed you in “Drive,” here he replaces his million-dollar smile with a brooding look of resentment. That’s about all you should expect from Gosling, who spends most of his time starring into the distance, covered in an eerie red radiance or hiding in the shadows. Cinematographer Larry Smith (“Bronson”) does a fantastic job making Bangkok look like the most picturesque rat-hole possible, and composer Cliff Martinez (“Spring Breakers”) is once again on point with his electronic flair, but that’s just about as far as “Only God Forgives” can be commended.
The film is so aware of its own joylessness, it has nothing else to do but sulk in it…and then sulk some more. There not much else it can do with characters so thinly written and relationships that are emotionally nonexistent. Maybe that’s the point Refn is trying to make with a character like Julian. He is disconnected from normalcy and will only come out from the dark if he is forced. But Refn should’ve given audiences something to latch onto – a personality for Julian, perhaps, or a reason to care about his end goal. Instead, Gosling grimaces and glares. And we groan.