Only God Forgives: Less Emotional Narrative

Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous violent crime thriller Drive was a runaway success. At times, Ryan Gosling’s character was an emotional center piece to the film’s story, but, despite its problems, the film balanced his expressive minimalism and violent acts with a sentimental richness and thrilling chain of events.

In Refn’s latest outing, every character is a center piece. In Only God Forgives we are expected to marvel at the attempts of each character to envelop one another with their own raging, black-hearted views of justice and vengeance. Witnessing this is certainly an experience, but not always an enjoyable one, thanks to the film’s sketchy outline of a narrative.

Essentially the plot follows Julian (Ryan Gosling) trying to avenge the murder of his older brother and co-runner in his Bangkok drug operation, Billy (Tom Burke). When he finds out his brother was killed for raping and murdering a prostitute, he changes track, but the arrival of his brutally merciless mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) forces him to continue a vicious, bloody cycle of revenge that is eventually dominated by an even more brutal police lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who had originally sanctioned Billy’s murder.

Only God Forgives expands upon many of the aesthetic choices made in Drive, however the end result is much less effective. The film’s saving grace is the fact that it undeniably looks great. Larry Smith’s cinematography and Beth Mickle’s production design are all superb. The slow creeps and retreats down corridors have a formal brilliance, the fight sequences are tidily composed and the city dazzles. Yet there is a huge hole at the film’s heart and it remains unable to draw us in emotionally.

The dream sequences seem to strive for something to draw the film together emotionally, though ultimately they fall into the same vacuous hole. Where Drive circulated around one character, building to a solid emotional crescendo, Only God… is too unfocused in where it wants to place its emotional grip. If you were put off by Gosling’s minimalist performance in Drive, there’s no enjoyment to be found in Only God Forgives. (Text Teuku Ajie)

Watch the official trailer below:

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