Ten Word or Less Review – God might forgive this crap. Maybe.
This is what happens when you let a talented guy make whatever the fuck he wants without question. Sometimes it’s as if filmmakers with unique perspective and genuine skill, when left unchecked, will set out to make a film guaranteed to be loathed and hated by the audience who has elevated them to their respected position. After Taxi Driver Martin Scorsese made the New York, New York, a wretched musical drama that had Robert DeNiro looking like he wanted punch Liza Minnelli in the face for three hours. Steven Spielberg followed up Close Encounters with 1941, a film that ran on the assumption that lots of noise was funny. In all fairness neither guy likely had audience alienation in mind with their respective efforts. But I’m not sure about Nicholas Winding Refn. He isn’t in the same rarefied class of those filmmakers but his last effort, Drive, was instantly granted cult status among film nerds. With it’s smooth groove soundtrack and hip vibe of McQueen styled machoism, Drive became an instant part of modern film worship over night and many assumed Refn was a new golden boy. So it was with extreme enthusiasm that people anticipated Only God Forgives and it was with muted glee that Refn looks to have spit blood into the face of his audience. Only God Forgives is a fiasco of overindulged bullshit that no one could make with any other purpose other than to test the patience and morals the poor assholes watching.
For Only God Forgives, Refn sets his sights on the neon hive of perversion and illicitness that is Bangkok. He drops Gosling into his misguided story about revenge and parenting gone awry as a lure for the audience. Gosling character has a scumbag of a brother who kills a 16 year old prostitute, though he really was hoping to kill a 14 year old. Even in Bangkok you can’t get everything all the time. No one told Refn that no one wants to watch a revenge tale established around the demise of someone we’re happy to see dead. The quixotic and cold-hearted police investigator in charge of the crime lets the dead girl’s father beat the brother to death with a club. Then to amend that act of retribution, the investigator cuts off the father’s arm. Don’t complain about J-Town cops so much people. Then Gosling’s Lady Macbeth of a mother shows up. She’s played by Kristin Scott Thomas and if they still used actual film she’d literally be trying to remove it from the camera and eat it with her bare hands, shoveling mouthfuls into her makeup caked face. Her schemes at vengeance, which ensnare her surviving son, are thwarted by the coldly psychopathic Bangkok policeman. He comes across like a Bangkok bred Terminator with a sword strapped to his back, though oddly enough we never notice it there. It appears almost at will like some kind of disappearing/reappearing third arm. Dispassionately dispatching one person and then another and another and another, Only God Forgives follows this guy as he dolls out death with a blank stare on his face. When it’s over most of the cast is dead or missing a limb and then karaoke is sung. The End.
Forgives plays like a 90 minute psychopathic fever dream. Refn shoots every scene in over-saturated, neon colors which practically bleed off the screen. It’s supposed to be hypnotic and beautiful but it mostly just gives you a headache. The film has so much amped up red that after a while I started to pray for the onset of color blindness. Refn’s thread bare story is told with heavy-handed symbolism and stoic gestures at every turn. It’s biggest issue, among many, is that it’s intensely one note in nature. The dreamscape atmosphere never subsides for a minute, eventually becoming mundane. Even David Lynch knew to break up the odd with a grounded scene at one turn or another. What’s here is a droning and dull story punctuated by fits of bloodletting and murder. And poor Gosling gets drug down into it willingly.
Gosling is playing a white piece of paper posing as a person. His mother calls him a drug dealer but we never see him actually deal drugs. He hangs out in a boxing arena but he’s not a fighter. Or at least not a good one. What he is is a hollow statue. I can understand Gosling’s desire to take a break from acting after a film such as this. His character has been written as nothing more than an empty vessel to signify impotence and inaction in the wake of twisted maternal issues. The wave of admiring man crushes and female desires he inspired in Drive have been amputated completely. Gosling’s character frequently visits an attractive Bangkok call girl that he passively watches but never lays a finger on. He seems to work in the fight field but when he goes toe to toe with psycho cop he gets his ass whupped. His venomous mother degrades his existence and he sits there like a wide-eyed, unresponsive lump of unchanneled tension. His dialogue is sparse and his facial expression a constant, locked in void. Refn looks to have directed him to be as remote and emotionless as possible at every moment, creating not a character, but a shell that absorbs physical and emotional abuse. It’s a stunning piece of non-performance. Scott Thomas is the only other performer to note. She says outlandish and gross statements meant to provoke shock, basically flirting with turning into Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Hers is a disingenuous performance right down to her bad blonde locks. It’s attention grabbing to be sure but it’s also ridiculous and silly.
The worst thing about Only God Forgives is that, despite everything I’ve said about it, there isn’t much special in how bad it is. It’s unabashedly lousy, dumb and boring but at the end of the day it’s just a crummy art house flick that no one will remember for long. I doubt even Refn and Gosling are going to strive to recall things about this one at the end of their day. The only thing really special about it is that everyone went in expecting a lot and what we got for our expectations was a lot of neon lights, severed arms and blood. And one more reason to hate karaoke. I won’t write off Refn though. After New York, New York Scorsese made Raging Bull. In the wake of 1941 Spielberg made Raiders of the Lost Ark. If someone tells Refn that there’s no future in bloody, neon soaked nihilism, there may be hope for him yet.