Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Cannes 2013: Only God Forgives Review

Director/Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Yayaying Rhatha Phongham, Vithaya Pansringarm, Bryon Gibson, Tom Burke

Synopsis: Julian (Gosling) and his brother (Burke) work in the criminal underground of Bangkok, with Julian dealing drugs to retain power. When his brother is killed he sets out to find the person responsible, pushed to such violent revenge mainly by his mother (Scott Thomas).

Only God Forgives as a follow-up to the magical contemporary masterpiece that was Drive was never going to be easy. However, it really seems that Refn rushed into production on this film, overlooking the time needed to craft an imaginative or entertaining film. Only God Forgives is beautiful to look at, and will leave you mulling over its style and substance long after, but in the cinema it’s a dull drag of an affair.

We all love a cinematic man of mystery. The enigma of a quiet, withdrawn character can be seductive and as Ryan Gosling showed in Drive, the silent types are sexy. For his part in Only God Forgives the man says close to nothing in the entire 90 minutes – a cardboard cut out would have sufficed in replacing Gosling as he’s pretty lifeless throughout. Similarly, Vithaya Pansringarm’s villain, who has his moments of edgy and explosive violence, looks and acts the same in every scene. The only character who adds some life to the film is Kristen Scott Thomas, clearly having a ball cursing constantly and playing extremely against type.

In contrast to Scott Thomas changing her appearance and manner for Refn, the director himself sticks squarely to the style he’s renowned for. His red-tinged shots and neon-lit, Noé –esque lighting are almost farcical in their exuberant utilisation; at points it’s embarrassing to see how desperately he wants his auteur quality on show. Gosling, who seems to speak less and less as he continues through his film career, clearly keeps his Drive persona in mind for playing Julian yet, like the director’s flair, escalates that method to an absurd level (almost mute). In an odd way you can see an attempt to amplify the genius of his previous, successful, filmography (violence, style and hip music) that completely fails. What’s left are a bunch of actors lost to wander through a tedious story yet captured elegantly in stunning photography.

Refn comrade Larry Smith (Bronson and Fear X’s cinematographer) joins the crew and puts a crisp sheen on every inch of the frame. Aesthetically it’s a treat – something that you will want to look at again, ignoring the plot – with perhaps more work going into the construction of colour, sets, lighting, costume and framing rather than a narrative. As with Vahalla Rising, this is a slow-moving yet sublime piece of art that will require a second glance, preserving some interest, fortunately.

A disappointment and a crying shame – Refn and Gosling not performing as well as one would hope. After the breathtaking Drive and the vitality of Bronson and Pusher 1 – 3, Only God Forgives feels limp and vacuous. Like a beguiling painting, you spend the time staring at its majesty even if you don’t quite understand or enjoy the overall work.

Only God Forgives was competing in the Competition Selection at Cannes 2013. Also posted on LiveForFilms 

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