Only God Forgives is not Drive. And early critical response indicates it won’t be received like Drive. But Nic Refn’s latest is at least another Refn/Gosling joint with similarities that don’t end with its star pair.
Despite infamous stories of being booed out at Cannes, there are redeeming (and familiar) aspects to Only God Forgives. Cliff Martinez is back with tone-setting, kick-ass compositions. Refn’s signature brand of highly-stylized violence returns as well, with one of the most cringe-worthy torture scenes and one of the strangest climatic moments imaginable. There are passage of visual ecstasy ala Drive: this film’s unnamed uber-cop practices his swordsmanship against a beautiful nature backdrop, and Gosling’s digs opt for deep red instead of hot pink but your eyes get washed in color just the same. The film features another seemingly invincible hero-figure, it ends ambiguously too.
Again, this is not Drive. Only God Forgives does have a few of its own unique pleasantries. For instance, there’s a creepy yet amusing karaoke motif carried throughout. But the biggest new addition is Kristen Scott Thomas here as Gosling’s in-command and crass mother. It might strike some as a shock-tactic or gimmick, but—love this character or loathe her—you won’t believe or forget the stuff that comes out of her.
Still, even if a Drive-fanboy can find silver linings, there’s no denying some of the shortcomings with Only God Forgives. If you’re not a seasoned samurai-genre fan, it can be difficult to parse out what sequences are reality from what’s dream, hallucination, or just plain surreal. Unlike Hollywood’s latest violence fetish, entire cities are spared here but some women and children aren’t. However, the biggest missteps seem to be with Gosling himself.
In both Drive and Only God Forgives, Gosling plays a minimalistic, tough, family-man who looks great no matter what. Driver was easy to love because there was substance behind this style. Sure, he was a badguy getaway driver at one point but he had a moral code. His transition into unrelenting killing-machine was fueled by love, and his quest was ultimately against forces who were decidedly evil. Driver was flawed, but he was, uh, a real hero.
Julian (Gosling’s role here) is more complex. If you’re rooting for him, it’s because this is Gosling in a bad-ass Gosling film—not because Julian is right, justified, or squaring off against worse evils. He is clearly the center of the film; it’s just unclear why we’d care about Julian if Refn didn’t shove him to the forefront. For as sexy a sell as Gosling in bad-ass mode might be, Only God Forgives would probably be a stronger film if that character was supporting someone else as the film’s epicenter (either Scott Thomas’ role or Gosling’s ultimate foil perhaps).
Tempered expectations are recommended. Only God Forgives won’t be convincing people to buy scorpion jackets anytime soon, but Drive diehards will find enough to make this worth a ticket. Ultimately, it can’t be said enough: Only God Forgives is not Drive. Drive was a highly-stylized film with a distinct point of view. It found a niche audience at first and deservedly built a small, devoted cult following over time. If that small slice of success is the ceiling, Only God Forgives is likely to end up flat on its back just like a certain brooding someone.