Nicholas Winding Refn has made a lot of movies with stood, nearly silent protagonists. His last film, drive, I loved. Valhalla Rising manages to convey a much or more about it’s mute protagonist without any dialogue from him as his previous work Bronson does with the protagonist addressing the camera directly. So how does this one fare?
Only God Forgives presents us with a new nearly silent protagonist in Julian as played by Ryan Gosling, who reunites with Refn after starring in Drive 2 years ago. Drive was a masterwork, each shot had depth and subtext and Ryan Goslings Driver conveyed as much or more in every scene where he doesn’t speak as the scenes where he does. Similarly, Julian doesn’t talk much, but he doesn’t have the layers that Driver did.
Julian lives in Bangkok and makes his living running a fight club which also serves as a front for the drug running empire his mother runs. Julians brother Billy brutally rapes and kills a prostitute which sets the main plot in motion. Billy is then killed and Julian and Billy’s mother shows up demanding that Julian take revenge on Billy’s killer. This is complicated by the involvement of a policeman who deals out justice on the street.
All in all it’s a great setup. As the story plays out though the thing you come to realize is that there is very little subtext. Julian has an undercurrent of rage, but he’s ultimately submissive to his overbearing and emotionally abusive mother. His mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, is terrifying and evil and manipulative. The policeman, quiet and exacting and brutal, is exactly that.
There’s nothing lurking beneath the surface here. Everyone is exactly who they appear to be. Julian does have a character arc but it’s not quite fulfilling. Probably the most interesting facet of the movie is that despite being presented as the antagonist the policeman is actually the hero; we’re seeing the story of a man trying to bring order to the city and chasing down the bad guys to kill them, but we’re seeing it from the bad guys side. The hero is coming for Julian and his mother (and everyone else involved with them) and we get to see a lot of the waiting and planning what to do when he shows up.
Refn is good at creating ambiance and crafting over the top yet believable violence but in this it’s almost too much. There’s a scene in which some brutal violence is done upon a side character and while you can see the intent is there for it to be a tense showdown between a good guy and a bad guy it’s just kind of over the top and while I found it unsettling it just showed too much to be affecting as, say, the now infamous head kicking scene in Drive or One Eye gaining his freedom in Valhalla Rising.
I do love though how Refn is able to tell his stories with as little dialogue as possible. It seems like he might be moving towards making a movie without any at all and when that happens you can bet my butt will be in a seat.
I’ve done a lot of comparing to previous work here and that’s not really fair. Does Only God Forgives stand on it’s own? Yes, yes it does. I’m glad I saw it and I think you should too. It’s one of the more interesting films I’ve seen all year thanks to it’s inverse take on the hero story and because it just looks amazing. It’s also an art house film that tells a story with visuals instead of mass exposition as so many other films this year have subjected us to. However it lacks depth; and while I think it’s worth seeing I cannot guarantee that you are going to like it.