Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Burke, Vithaya Pansringarm
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When the impassioned and entitled throng of the Cannes Film Festival looked upon Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest bloody wonder, back in May, they didn’t exactly despair as much as kick up an almighty hissy fit. And who could blame them? A couple of years ago, in the salad days of 2011, they were audacious enough to name Refn ‘Best Director’ for Drive. Cosmically violent, effortlessly urbane and generally bloody brilliant, Drive was a wonderfully gaudy revenge piece that dared position the Mickey Mouse Club’s very own Ryan Gosling as a cinematic icon in the making. The film drowned in its own surface, and ultimately achieved very little. But the soundtrack rocked and the jackets were fabulous, and that was kind of the point, right?
Gosling’s back for another spin at the decks with Only God Forgives, but if Drive lightly tip-toed around the discotheque of darkness, then this is an all-out Danse Macabre. It’s a gnarly and lubricious film that lambadas its way through an assortment of big themes like honour, masculinity and Oedipal rage. With unnecessary karaoke. And massive, shiny swords. Does it work? Not by a long shot. This is a mild disappointment from the Pusher director. Frankly, no wonder Cannes was perplexed.
Gosling plays an expat club owner called Julian (Julian!) whose older brother Billy (Burke) is killed in a revenge attack after raping and murdering an underage prostitute. Julian tracks down his brother’s killer, but struggles to enact his own grisly vengeance, and ends up letting the huckster go free. This unfortunate turn of events fails to impress Julian’s mother, Crystal (Scott Thomas, foul-mouthed and glorious throughout), who arrives on the scene to take control of the family business – basically, they’re massive drug traffickers – and supervise the elimination of her eldest son’s executioner. In Crystal’s serpentine eyes, Julian is a crushing disappointment, and simply isn’t up to the task. His goal? To prove her wrong, while avoiding the righteous, blade-sharp judgement of local enforcer Lieutenant Chang (Pansringarm).
Refn directs with scarlet precision and admirable symmetry. His camera glacially skates through the Bangkok underworld with a ketamine glare. But the film is both gratuitously brutal and brutally obvious. The mystery is… there is no mystery. If this was a Kubrick or Lynch, there’d be all kinds of enigmas and subtleties to mull over in every single scene. “Silencio!” we’d cry, while riffling through each frame in search of meaning. Refn, however, seems incapable of nuance. He lays it all bare, using the screen as some kind of elaborate therapy session.
Take, for instance, the mother/son relationship at the core of the film (we’d say ‘heart’, though we’re not sure it has one). There’s a moment when Julian literally penetrates Crystal – it’s not an overtly sexual act (no spoilers here: you’ll just have to watch the film to see what we mean) but the whole thing’s dripping in a blatant, sub-Freudian glaze. In fact, the film’s essentially just one big, blood-stained, psychosexual nightmare.
The evidence? We learn very early on that Lieutenant Chang has a tendency to chop off the hands of the hapless few who fail to meet expectations (Only God Forgives is nothing if not barbaric). As a result, Julian’s dreams are continuously haunted by the possibility of dismemberment; this fear infects everything. It’s no coincidence that at every turn, Julian’s under constant pressure to perform, whether it’s as a son, a lover, a killer or businessman. His masculinity is in a perpetual state of crisis. Bizarrely, Refn appears to have composed a paean to erectile dysfunction masquerading as a hipster thriller. Subtext, it seems, is for losers.
To get away with this kind of guff you really need a star who can transcend the material. Thank goodness for Ryan Gosling. He’s a vision in black jeans and skin-tight tee. The second he walks into shot, it feels like 60 years of Hollywood machismo have suddenly been unleashed upon the screen. He’s James Dean, Marlon Brando and River Phoenix, all at the same time. He’s the real deal – and he bloody well knows it. True, Refn doesn’t give the Blue Valentine star an awful lot to do, but it’s a cunning bit of casting. This is a quiet, impressionistic performance from Gosling, whose handsome, hard-boiled, movie star allure helps audiences negotiate their way through Refn’s depressing and undeniably impotence-heavy crime odyssey.