It's impossible to view Only God Forgives, the new film from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, without comparing it to his 2011 masterpiece. For one, it reunites the director with Ryan Gosling, once again playing a stoic man caught in a web of violence. The biggest factor, though, is the fact that this is his follow-up to the film that helped him break through on the worldwide stage; therefore, the pressure was always going to be on for this film to match the highs of his previous project.
This is all to say that I approached Only God Forgives with lowered expectations. It was high on my anticipated list at the beginning of the year, but after a chilly reception at Cannes and an even more brutal consensus from American critics, I braced myself to be underwhelmed. But is the film really as bad as it's reputation holds? Yes and no.
The film begins with the murder of Billy (Tom Burke), the brother of drug-smuggler Julian (Gosling); his death was retribution for his raping and murder of a prostitute. Julian - egged on by his mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) - seeks retribution against Billy's murderer, katana-wielding Bangkok police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). From there, violence begets violence, leading up to a climatic showdown between Julian and Chang.
This film bears much in common with Refn's earlier films, such as the Pusher trilogy or Valhalla Rising. There's no denying that Refn is a talented director, especially when it comes to his film's visual aesthetic. Even with all the ugliness occurring in the narrative, this is a beautiful film, with every scene bathed in reds and blues that reflect the neon-lit Bangkok landscape. And, as in Drive, he has a knack for soundtrack; he reunites with composer Cliff Martinez, who provides the film with eerie drones, and deliciously juxtaposes Thai pop ditty "Tur Kue Kwam Fun (Music Box)" as a coda to ninety minutes of bloodshed. Like his earlier films, this one comes from a script by Refn himself, and it plays out like a violent fantasia from the director's daydreams.
And yet, there's still good things to find here. I wrote a piece about directors' ambitions earlier this year, and as with The Place Beyond the Pines (coincidentally also starring Gosling), this film is the work of a director who scored a critical hit and was given the freedom to make any film he wanted, and there's something to be said about what Refn was going for here: a marriage of his too-cool aesthetic with Asian action cinema. There are moments when the film does click - such as an excruciating interrogation in what appears to be a very swanky karaoke bar - and it feels like a contender as one of the year's best films. But then there are moments that are so mind-bendingly bad - anytime Crystal appears to obnoxiously berate everyone in her vicinity (to her credit, Thomas makes the most of what little sense her character makes) - that it's hard to believe anyone thought they should be committed to celluloid.
That is Only God Forgives' biggest failure: it feels like a film that worked a lot better in Refn's head than it did in reality. It's an intriguing film, one that will at worst become a curio in the director's filmography and at best - and I really can foresee this - become a cult favorite that evolves into a staple of genre-centric film classes of the future. But in this moment, it's a frustrating project from a filmmaker who can clearly do so much better. C+