Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive arrived at an opportune moment. Coming off a decade where the American genre film devolved into lowest-common-denominator investments and blockbusters ballooned skyward on the backs of sequels and franchises, Refn’s modest exercise in crime pastiche and car-chase nostalgia parlayed both the exhaustion of Hollywood’s narrative resources and—perhaps more importantly—the gathering mainstream curiosity in independent music’s preoccupation with the sound and feel of the 1980s (the film’s soundtrack has become one of the most popular word-of-mouth successes of the decade).
Only God Forgives hasn’t been granted such fortuitous timing. Everything about Refn’s latest is built on Drive’s successful formula, from star Ryan Gosling’s stoic, near-wordless performance to a scenery-chewing supporting turn from a respected and unexpected source (Kristin Scott Thomas as Gosling’s vindictive mother) to Cliff Martinez’s ambient, synth-based score to the stylized violence which gradually ups the gratuity factor as the film progresses. What’s left is only the barest outline of a story, which, while admittedly unique for the audience the film will likely be marketed toward, is unable to sustain a 90-minute film simply by its own virtue.
The setup is pure Vengeance Flick 101: When Billy (Tom Burke), the brother of local drug-smuggler Julian (Gosling), is murdered following a heinous sex crime, it’s up to Julian and his mother, Crystal (Thomas), to exact revenge on those responsible, who in this case include criminals and law-enforcement officials alike. The sole feature to differentiate Only God Forgives from hundreds of similarly plotted films is its milieu. Set against the backdrop of the Thai boxing underworld, the film makes the most of its distinctive locale. Shot in Refn’s typically fluid, dreamlike style, the film is bathed in deep reds and golds, exploiting shadowy interiors for maximum atmospheric effect. All the aesthetic pleasures in the world mean little, however, when put in service of such one-dimensional characters and shallow moral codes.
Thomas’s sadistic mother figure is indicative of the film’s problematic construction. An archetype of eye-rolling familiarity, Crystal is all bleached-blond bitching and blunt motivation. In an attempt at creating a deliciously evil character in the vein of Albert Brooks’s Drive villain, Refn and Thomas are instead left with a stale approximation of malevolence that shoots for comedy, but instead plays as parody. Coupled with the film’s other chief antagonist (to use the term lightly, as everyone in the film essentially functions as a dishonorable cog in a wheel headed toward hellfire), a retired police chief with an equally merciless sense of justice, but a yen for karaoke, the film’s primary sources of inhumanity are instead rendered as caricature.
Refn certainly retains his eye for composition and his innate sense for creating a hypnotic environment. But without a second, let alone third, dimension to this story, there’s little left to thematically consider and deconstruct. We know nothing of Julian, his brother, his mother, or his life within the Thai boxing community, and with less than probably 12 lines of dialogue, the character remains a cipher who’s difficult to sympathize with, Gosling’s inherent charisma as an actor notwithstanding. Drive thrived on its combination of noir-ish tension, thrilling set pieces, and cheesy romance, and stood out as something subtly unique in an era of overblown spectacle and cornea-blasting bombast. Only God Forgives catches the eye with visual pleasures, but undercuts its narcotic spell with the very clichés it would like to subvert.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 15—26.