Drive, the deliriously bloody and overwrought Ryan Gosling art thriller that premiered two years ago at Cannes, is a movie that I found stylish in its way (it was hard not to, given that the film was nothing but style), but also luridly unconvincing. I didn’t see it, or even hear anything about it, until its opening weekend, and later, as I caught up with the ecstatic reviews and began to talk to people who thought it was some sort of nihilistic pop masterpiece, I realized that the elements of Drive that I had experienced as borderline loopy — like, say, the entire plot, or Albert Brooks’ corned-beef-meets-ham performance as a “dangerous” mobster — were experienced by others as hiply stylized. You really could read Drive either way: as a sort-of-real-world thriller that didn’t hang together, or as a gorgeously violent tone poem that existed in its own (unreal) world.
I don’t suspect there will be any such division over Only God Forgives, the movie that re-teams Gosling with director Nicolas Winding Refn, who made Drive. This one is intensely, almost purplishly stylized — a solemnly preposterous piece of designer revenge pulp, with characters who stand around, impassive, bathed in hot red and blue light, like David Lynch mannequins. Winding Refn, who was born in Denmark and moved to the U.S. when he was 11, has cited The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as the formative film in his experience, and in Only God Forgives, he seems to be trying to blend the insane violence of a slasher film with the Lynchian oddballness of something like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. One of the two main characters is a retired Bangkok police officer who slashes people’s limbs off with a samurai sword and then retreats to a karaoke nightclub, where he faces an inert audience as he sings melancholy songs of lost love, à la Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet. How cool! How wacky Asian psycho pop!
The trouble is, Only God Forgives doesn’t have a script so much as it has a body count. Its characters, even the one played by Gosling (his name is Julian), don’t pretend to be anything more than one-note abstractions. A young man — an American who is Julian’s brother and partner in the drug rackets — rapes and murders a 16-year-old prostitute. As her blood-soaked corpse lies on the floor, her father, who sold her to a brothel, is invited to do what he wants to the killer, and the result is that the killer, too, is soon a blood-soaked corpse lying on the floor. That’s when Julian’s mother, Crystal, shows up from the States. She’s some sort of mobster dragon lady, and she’s played by Kristin Scott Thomas in thick wavy blonde hair that looks like she stole it off Donatella Versace — except that she makes Donatella Versace look relaxed.
The angrier Crystal gets, the more her dialogue turns into a series of howlers that the audience laughs at, not with. Crystal, who’s there to avenge her son’s murder (even though our attitude toward his death was basically: good riddance), launches a vendetta, and the trouble is, she’s breaking Bangkok rules. The seedy, back-alley neon city is depicted as a land of depravity and no mercy, but also martinet control, where the police are underworld enforcers. It’s their way, or no way at all. And so our cop-samurai friend, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), must restore order by taking vengeance on Crystal’s war of vengeance. Got it?
What this means is: lots of overripe maiming and execution, all done to a musical score of Satanic synth-pop. This is the sort of movie in which Chang, trying to get information, sticks four ice picks in the arms and legs of a suspect, and even when the guy is squirming and screaming, he still won’t tell Chang what he wants to hear, and so Chang has to go after an eyeball next, and…well, you get the idea. This isn’t dramatic violence; it’s just torture. But that’s okay, you see, because Chang has a code. Vithaya Pansringarm, the actor who plays him, is the best thing in the movie — he somehow scowls with displeasure and looks amused at the same time — and he more or less upstages Gosling, who has little of consequence to do until he’s beaten to a pulp. Gosling is such a good actor that he wears his facial bruises expressively, getting us to feel his pain. But that’s the one time I felt anything in Only God Forgives. I doubt this movie is going to get the acclaim, or the attention, that Drive did — that is, if it’s lucky enough to even play in megaplexes. Nicolas Winding Refn has talent, but offhand, I’d say that he should go back to his teenage inspiration and make a horror movie, instead of what Only God Forgives is: a horror movie dressed up in swank and nonsense.
Owen’s other posts from Cannes: