You can’t really blame Nicolas Winding Refn for making Only God Forgives. Drive was such a success; why not try the same basic formula again? The fact that the film fails (pretty spectacularly) is not the fault of Refn’s eye, nor of the actors. Really, it’s a script issue.
The film is, in fact, beautiful. Like Drive it’s dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky, and the fake, paint-like blood, and wide, Christian-tinged frames are indeed reminiscent:
Refn captures Bangkok’s neon lights beautifully, and the dominant red/pink/orange scheme fits the violent, Oedipal narrative:
I love the depth of the second image. It could be pulled from Suspiria.
He favors a lot of wide, lateral tracking shots. There’s something cool about this camera movement that matches the coolness of Julian. Maybe it’s that it’s not emotionally dollying in or out, but rather just following like a good, trained camera should (‘good boy’):
And some of his more broken down locations are pretty, made all the more so by some clever framing and blocking:
Some moments look flat-out surreal (like that first image). Kristin Scott Thomas’ Crystal, Julian’s (Ryan Gosling) monster of a mother frequently gets the treatment:
The implication of the title of the film is, of course, that no one else [forgives], and that’s true. OGF is a violent affair. Actually, pretty comically so. And while OGF would be a great film to watch on mute, elements that made Drive shine, are exactly what makes this plummet.
Drive is driven (eh, eh?) by a high school-like romance between Gosling’s Driver and Carey Mulligan’s Irene. It’s a little ridiculous – Refn so severely under-edits his reaction shot that it feels like the frame is frozen at times, lending to a bit of pacing that’s either amateurish or genius…the way much of Drive feels – but it’s believable because there are real stakes (Irene’s kid), and also because the two simply spend a lot of time together.
The motivating force in OGF is the death of Julian’s brother, a troubled Michael Shannon doppleganger who seems to existentially and drunkenly roam the city looking for murderous possibilities. He finds them. The plot starts. The problem is that Julian has little to do in the film. He doesn’t have anyone to protect like the Driver did, and he doesn’t really care to avenge his brother. He’s got a “relationship” with a prostitute Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) which really means that he watches her masturbate. If you (meaning, ‘if I’) thought that the relationship in Drive was culled from Twin Peaks but with less irony, then the love in OGF feels like it’s still just words on paper. There’s no chemistry…and it seems like there’s not supposed to be. Julian is just sort of there. He (maybe) hates his mother. He (maybe) loves Mai. He’s (maybe) a good fighter. And he (maybe) has a soft spot for kids. It’s not only that all of this is so vague, it’s also that he just seems to give so little of a damn – and not in some uber-cool Alain Delon kind of way, but rather in a ‘I’m confused; why should I give a damn again?’ kind of way – that he’s the least interesting character, yet the one with at least the second-most screen time.
The second problem is Kristin Scott Thomas. Not her acting. I’m a huge fan. It’s the material she’s given. In Drive (yeah, they’re not the same movie, and yeah, it’s not really fair to compare films a lot of the time, but I mean, it’s pretty evident that Refn’s going for a similar tone) Albert Brook’s Bernie is a mean, mean man. It’s also funny because, well, it’s Albert Brooks.
While Thomas isn’t a comic mensch she does come from a pretty impressive filmography – I’ve Loved You So Long (such a great performance!), Tell No One, The English Patient, etc – so the shock value of her vulgar language has potential. But the writing just isn’t sharp. Refn wants her to own scenes, to take over the film, and to deliver at least one monologue that’s brutal in its coldness, but it all comes off as silly and ineffective. When she talks about the size of her two sons’ penises at a super-awkward dinner it’s supposed to be a ‘gasp, will this woman stop at nothing’ moment; or at least an ‘open your mouth and silently laugh, stupefied’ moment; but instead it’s feels contrived and over-written, like Refn is grasping for something that will stick, and not something that would actually come out of someone’s mouth.
Here’s a random something I noticed. No one really runs in OGF. I can think of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, who looks really funny running at full speed) running at one point, but no other major character really does anything beside move calmly. It’s almost like everyone’s either in full on Michael Myers mode, or that they’re just too cool to sweat. Hell, even when Gosling bleeds he doesn’t seem concerned.
That type of coolness runs throughout Refn’s work – Tom Hardy in Bronson and Mads Mikkelsen in Valhalla Rising both exhibit it to different degrees, but both of those work to an extent because of, in the case of the former, a ridiculously compelling protagonist, and in the case of the latter, a film so dystopic that its closest cousin might be Aguirre: The Wrath of God. I’ll be really surprised if OGF doesn’t turn out to be a cult favorite. It’s got all the markings of it: violence, pretty colors, hilarious one-liners (“Time to meet the devil.”), actors cast against type and/or lost in their roles. It would play really well with El Topo actually, which I suppose is exactly what Refn wants.