“The second enemy of creativity, after having ‘good taste’, is being safe.”
So says Nicolas Winding Refn in his Director’s Note.
Well, one thing that can certainly be said for Only God Forgives is that it’s not safe.
At a point in his career, post - Drive , where he can do anything he pleases, Winding Refn here pushes his penchant for overt style, sparse dialogue and enigmatic meaning to breaking point and beyond.
Only God Forgives is, undoubtedly, a Nicolas Winding Refn movie, with all the tics and tropes we’ve come to expect and adore. But then To The Wonder is most certainly a Terrence Malick film, and, as with that movie, you here get the sense you’re witnessing an accumulation and summation.
The promise of a new direction is hugely appealing.
Set in Bangkok, the slight story sees Julian (Ryan Gosling) running a boxing club to front his drug business. His older brother, Billy (Tom Burke), rapes and kills a 16-year-old prostitute, and is himself killed by the girl’s father as an act of retribution.
Enter Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a fearsome matriarch whose language is as colourful as her peroxide hair. She demands Julian in turn wreaks revenge for the murder of her first-born and favourite, a mission that will pitch him against mysterious ex-policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).
Teasing extreme violence in its trailers and promo-clips, Only God Forgives in fact camouflages much of its bloodshed and instead relies on sound effects and after-shots. (A sudden close-up of an eye-slitting being the wince-inducing exception, Winding Refn appearing to cut tastefully away before returning unexpectedly).
No, the only boundaries the Danish director is here interested in pushing are those of form, with much of the picture rinsed in a neon colours, mostly red, and the camera zooming and panning an inch at a time.
The ornate set designs are Thai Lynch, the stately compositions and creeping camera enough to get Kubrick squirming impatiently on his cloud.
And then there’s Julian, all 17 lines of him, his close-mouthed motionlessness making Driver seem positively perky. OK, he wears the shit out of a suit while being beaten to a pulp and his trembling beauty will get hearts a-fluttering, but Gosling, like Winding Refn, is here taking his signature moves to the end of the line.
Expect a new persona when the actor's self-imposed ‘retirement’ is over.
Only God Forgives is a failure but a rather magnificent failure, made on Refn’s own terms. It is a beautiful, hollow film, with the director’s insistence that Julian is fighting God – and that the film is about existential crisis – needing to be taken at its word.
For most, it simply comes down to this: it’s no Drive .