Drive was one of the biggest unexpected hits of 2011. Featuring a strong performance from Ryan Gosling (Whose niche as mostly silent characters in thrillers have made him a regular Gordon Freeman), and terrifically directed sequences of slow burning suspense courtesy of Nicolas Winding Refn, critics loved it, and it even got some loving attention in the mainstream as well. Refn’s next film would be highly anticipated, a sort of spiritual successor to Drive called Only God Forgives (albeit with completely different moods). This film seems to split people into two camps: those who love it with the highest of passions, and those who despise virtually every second of the film. At least I had an idea of what to expect, but it’s unfortunate then for me to say that I’m on that second boat. Whereas Drive wound up becoming one of my favorite movies of 2011, Only God Forgives struck me as a discordant purgatory all its own that I couldn’t wait to be over.
Set in the criminal depths of Bangkok, Thailand, Only God Forgives mostly revolves around Julian, a boxer of few words whose brother has recently been murdered, due in no small part from a cop known as the Angel of Vengeance, who for some reason seems to like karaoke singing. Anyway, in light of the situation, Julian’s manipulative mother flies into the country, seeking to coerce Julian into avenging his brother’s death. Or at least that’s what I got out of it.
I love Nicolas Winding Refn’s direction, but here, he’s really misusing it. In fact, it feels as if here, it’s just someone badly aping his style. It feels as if his focus is so misguided, particularly in the case of his actors. None of the characters succeeded in interesting me, and the actors didn’t help much with that, with Ryan Gosling and Kristen Scott Thomas feeling as if they’re sleepwalking. A lot of the film takes place in silence, which is not to say silence in films can’t work, but it all adds up to such a web of confusion. I can remember there being some decent scenes of note, but I can also think of those that bored me, and at least one moment when I laughed when the film didn’t want to make me laugh.
The cinematography and color scheme quickly become garish to look at, and the whole thing is even more grating because of the droning synth score by Cliff Martinez, who has quickly become one of my least favorite composers ever since Contagion. Most clunky of all, I feel, is Mat Newman’s editing. Scenes awkwardly transition into one another with seemingly no rhyme or reason, sending even further confusing vibes. What, if anything, is the movie trying to say? I don’t know. I’m not saying things needed to be spelled out, but maybe some more elaboration would have been nice. Scenes don’t linger long enough to let things sink in, and certain times, they’ll transfer from murderous slaughter to a scene of karaoke… Why? This is a film I straight up don’t “get”.
All in all, this wasn’t the follow up that I was hoping for. Truth be told, I hate that I hate this film. There is clearly a lot of ambition somewhere in this thing, but most of it is badly wasted, foiled by the film’s own lack of cohesion, intentional or not. If only God forgives, then this movie is beyond salvation.
*1/2 / *****