When Ryan Gosling is billed as the lead actor in a film, it’s reasonable to expect a strong performance. As one of the strongest young actors in Hollywood, the versatile Gosling has been successful from La La Land to The Nice Guys, displaying both a moxie and personality that are always perfectly in tune with the film he’s in. This expectation is the chief disappointment of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013), where the “lead” in “lead actor” should refer to the heavy metal, as Gosling’s uncharacteristic lack of energy weighs down this sinking ship of a film.
After the popular success of Drive (2011), the combination of Refn and Gosling looked to be a winner. Unfortunately, Refn squanders his lead’s talents on a directionless, non-emotive shell of a character. Either there is too much going on in Gosling’s character for me to understand or there is nothing going on at all, but the effect of either would be the same: the lead is totally unengaging, sucking the life out of what could have been an intriguing plot.
Set in Bangkok, Gosling’s character, Julian, runs a Thai boxing club as a front for a drug operation. Seeing as the only white characters in the film are shady American expats such as Julian, how this “front” wasn’t figured out from the get-go baffles me. Regardless, Julian’s business partner/brother is summarily killed after raping and murdering a teenage girl. Despite Julian’s understanding of the situation, his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) flies in to demand retribution against those responsible.
Thomas’s character is downright repulsive. Her mere presence in a scene is enough to make any viewer uncomfortable. The strange, almost incestuous tension between her and her sons leaves the viewer feeling molested, which becomes an unfortunately common feeling as the film proceeds.
Julian’s enigmatic relationship with a prostitute also leaves the viewer with that awful, violated feeling. While there is no nudity and very little explicit sexual content in the film, Only God Forgives makes you want to fast-forward many of the early scenes as if you were watching Game of Thrones with your grandmother.
The shining bright spot of the film is the police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). While his motives are murky, the methods he uses on his apparent quest for justice are engrossing. His vigilantism is reminiscent of the Punisher, but in a toned-down, precise way. He is the one who allows the father of the murdered girl to kill Julian’s brother, pitting him in a personal battle with Julian’s mother.
The vigilante lawman is a very American archetype, making Pansringarm’s character the most relatable and likable amidst a film of poorly developed and poorly performed roles. Much of the acting is stale, compounded by a sever lack of dialogue. The lengthy wordless stretches in the film feel rigid, but as soon as the rare dialogue begins, I found myself begging for the silence to return, as the script is the weakest element in a generally weak film.
In the uncomfortably abstract wordless sequences of the film, a surprising strength of the film is revealed: the score. Composed by Cliff Martinez, the film’s musical accompaniment serves to drive the plot when the actors and director fail to do so. Interestingly enough, the moments where no one talks are the ones that speak the loudest.
Despite handicapped acting, terrible dialogue, and a failed over-commitment to the abstract, Refn has a decent film hiding amongst the rubbish. The general plot arc becomes much more comprehensible as the film advances, and Pansringarm adds desperately needed suspense to the thriller. Had this film been made by a different director, it could have been a great success, but Refn’s attempts at subjective stimulation all wound up as objective failures.
Wagner’s Watch-worthiness: 5/10
Photo credit: ©2013 – Wild Bunch