Nicolas Winding Refn is a lucky man. His 2011 film Drive was the emperor’s new clothes for most critics and some viewers who saw a visionary in a film that depicts the typical American hero who saves the damsel in distress just in time to ride into the sunset. Not only did I not find anything particularly remarkable in this film, but also I think it has ruined Ryan Gosling’s career. He’s too self-important now, and this we can see in his latest collaboration with Winding Refn.
Only God Forgives is another fantasy that idealizes violence (in this case revenge), in a story where its characters’ moral center is movable at will. Take for example Julian, Gosling’s character. He is basically a pose more than an actual living-flesh character. Having fled America after he killed a man, and hidden in Bangkok, he finds himself forgiving his brother’s killer because his depraved brother had viciously murdered the killer’s underage daughter. Why this sudden moral change in a drug dealer hit man that fixes fights in Bangkok’s Neon lit nights? Well, we are supposed to believe he feels empty just because he sits everywhere in a state of trance. Not only that, but when he is face to face with the quietly ferocious ex-policeman Chang (“the devil himself” as he is described), he just takes the punches, his face completely disfigured but no sign of pain. Julian has become a martyr, but we still don’t know what caused it or what for. Like in Drive, the hero’s motives are hidden to a point were we even question his consciousness. We settle for knowing he had to do it because he is the film’s main character…and Ryan Gosling.
Kristin Scott Thomas’s “Big Momma” character is the opposite: very expressive, even if she is also posing (Winding Refn should have made a collection of stills instead of a movie). She is, without a doubt a monstrous mother, with hints of incest, betrayal and depravity (but only hints). We don’t know exactly where they come from and how they influence the story. The whole film seems to be immersed in a netherworld bubble where things happen just to fill up time and space (like Julian’s girlfriend and the scene where she is asked to return her dress). Kristin fills her Cristal with tics while Gosling and Pansringarm hardly move.
In the end, this seems to be a revenge film told through the severed ear of Lynch’s Blue Velvet, but without any clear implication or focus, other than the staging of its paralyzed scenes in perfectly geometrical corridors and other sites bathed in blue and fuchsia neon light, as Chang entertains the bored policemen (and us) with his corny songs and we watch some tough guys kills each other as they have always done.
I believe Nicolas needs to put his thoughts together before attempting another film, because sheer luck won’t carry him for much longer.