Ryan Gosling has recently re-teamed with two directors who came up aces for him on their last films.
Earlier this year, Gosling gave a magnetic performance in The Place Beyond the Pines for director Derek Cianfrance, maker of the excellent Blue Valentine. Pines is one of the year’s best pictures so far, a movie worth revisiting.
Now comes Only God Forgives from Nicolas Winding Refn, who made the masterpiece Drive. While Drive cemented Gosling as one of the better young actors on screens today, Forgives winds up being a complete nonevent.
This movie has virtually nothing to offer. Gosling plays Julian, a Bangkok drug-smuggler whose brother is killed by a local cop. At the urging of his foul-mouthed mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), he seeks revenge on his brother’s killer, resulting in a fight in which he gets his ass supremely kicked.
That’s it. That’s the movie: Gosling gets his ass kicked while Thomas curses up a storm. Some people get their arms cut off; some people get worse; and that is all.
Other than Thomas talking in a way that would make Harvey Keitel blush, there isn’t that much dialogue. There are a couple of dreamy karaoke sequences that feel as if they were lifted from the cutting-room floor of the last David Lynch film, and that’s it.
The word out of the Cannes Film Festival is that Only God Forgives received boos mixed with a standing ovation. Those who hated the film cited it for gratuitous violence that went beyond the realm of excusable.
The violence is pretty extreme, but most folks will handle it. The real problem is that there is no discernible story. Refn got a crew together, gave his performers little to say or do, and delivered a revenge story in which viewers will care about nobody.
This will draw comparisons to Drive, and it should. Drive was a movie that positioned Refn as a force to be reckoned with. Characters actually said things together; Gosling looked like he had a clue; and Albert Brooks provided dark humor. The shimmering soundtrack and excellent cinematography made it a complete film.
Only God Forgives, in contrast, is one of those impressionistic affairs in which a director thinks he’s made a movie simply because he went out, shot some stuff, and edited it together. There’s some sort of symbolism going on with shots of hands and touching, apparently Refn’s weak attempt to make his film “deeper.” All the hand stuff really does is help get the film’s running time to 90 minutes.
Vithaya Pansringarm plays Chang, Julian’s nemesis and the person who is chopping people’s arms off. IMDB.com says that Refn directed Pansringarm by telling the actor he was God before every shot. Whatever.
I get excited when I hear that a good director is doing something experimental. Nothing had me more excited this movie year than the idea of Gosling and Refn together again. But after watching Only God Forgives, I’m thinking these two need a break from each other. All they’ve come up with is a bore fest about a mopey drug guy with serious mommy issues.
I also think Refn should go back to directing other people’s screenplays, as he did with Drive. The screenplay for this one is all his, and the blame for its profound stupidity lies squarely on his shoulders.
Only God Forgives is playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or, 72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert (760-779-0430).