Nicolas Winding Refn, director of DRIVE, the PUSHER trilogy and BRONSON, cites the influence of Argentine émigré Gaspar Noë (IRREVERSIBLE, ENTER THE VOID) for his latest film, ONLY GOD FORGIVES. On the evidence of the result, I would suggest he was going Noë-where. Ryan Gosling, the star of DRIVE, reteams with his director to lesser effect. The film had few fans at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where it debuted, the jury opting to give the top gong to LA VIE D’ADELE (BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR).
The only quality this has in common with DRIVE is the spare dialogue. The setting is Bangkok. Gosling plays Julian, who appears to run a gym that specialises in holding muay thai fights with young boys. Betting takes place on the sidelines. One night, Julian’s brother goes out to a brothel. He wants a fourteen-year old girl. The owner says that the women here are the only ones available. He replies: ‘you have a daughter, bring her out’. As the owner goes to get help, the brother clubs him over the head, ducks into the show-window, assaults and kills one of the girls. The family want revenge and consult with a local cop. The brother is killed. Julian wants revenge. He confronts the killer, but after hearing what his brother did, spares his life. His mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) is not best pleased, especially when her hotel room is not ready. ‘I travelled for 30 hours, 10,000 miles and I want a f–ing bed.’
Scott Thomas is the reason to see the film. Bleach blonde hair, a thick American accent, she’s tough as nails and brassy as a four poster bed from ‘Sweet Dreamz’ (other furniture stores are available). She plays the mother as if she were a character in a Greek tragedy. ‘He was my first born. Now he’s dead. I want the f-er who killed him to pay.’ (Approximation of dialogue; I’m sure I missed out a few epithets.) When Julian takes his Thai girlfriend, Mei to meet her, Mother isn’t impressed. ‘Did he tell you that he’s a drug dealer? You should know that if you’re going to join the family.’ Yes, Scott Thomas has attended the Jacki Weaver charm school on this one (if you recall Weaver’s Oscar nominated performance in ANIMAL KINGDOM).
Mei is disgusted. After the dinner date (what, no coffee?) she declares that she won’t keep the dress that Julian bought for her. ‘Well, take it off then,’ says the suitably emasculated Julian. Mei does so, in the street and gives it to him. Fierce stares are exchanged, but then that happens a lot.
Julian decides to track down the cop. ‘You wanna fight?’ he asks. Julian gets his butt kicked. So now it’s Mother’s turn. She hires an American to arrange a hit on the cop. For reasons best left to improbable plotting, it goes awry. The shooter is caught. The American go-between who hired the shooter is killed in a fairly graphic, yuk-making way involving skewers – and then some. Mother eventually gets it in the neck, literally.
Julian is obliged to avenge his mother. He kills some of those involved, but won’t allow an innocent child to be killed (so he shoots his own accomplice). Then he faces the cop who has a large sword, holds out his fists and waits for the cycle of violence to end.
Intermittently, we see the cop performing karaoke to his colleagues, who sit politely and do not move. We are supposed to glean two things for this: that though he metes out justice with some handy fists (and a sword), he has the soul of a poet; and that his colleagues are terrified of him. The meaning of the title is a challenge. If only God forgives why do we bother? We are compelled to mete out our own justice and this is our downfall, unless of course you are a tough karaoke-singing cop.
Intensely moody, bordering on misogyny it is a study of masculinity in a crowded market. In his early films, Refn was influenced by Martin Scorsese. I think he should have developed his own style by now. His films are overly violent and with a graphic content escalated to the mid-point so by the end we fear what might happen next. This is basically a circus trick of the Jim Rose-school and not something I want to watch again and again. Judging by the sparse audience at the screening I attended (21:45, Pathe Spui, The Hague) I’m not alone.