Stylistically notable "Only God Forgives" lacks character arcs

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Ryan Gosling plays Julian in "Only God Forgives."

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

In his last few films – 2009’s merciless “Valhalla Rising” and 2011’s excellent “Drive” — Nicolas Winding Refn has demonstrated a strong interest in the juxtaposition between absolutely controlled stillness and bursts of blood-soaked brutality. “Only God Forgives,” Refn’s newest film, seems more interested in capturing a feeling of stoicism in the face of impending doom than telling a particularly compelling or coherent story, pushing the director’s trademark glacial pacing to its limits. While the film proves to be a stylistically arresting experience, fans hoping for “Drive 2” are bound to be disappointed.

“Drive” comparisons are only elevated by the presence of Ryan Gosling, who returns to Refn’s screen as Julian, the eternally clenched owner of a Thai boxing club. When his brother (Tom Burke) rapes and kills a teen prostitute, the girl’s father exacts revenge with the blessing of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a menacing police officer with a penchant for removing limbs. Upon learning the circumstances of the killing, Julian elects not to seek revenge. His caustic viper of a mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) has other plans, spilling all the blood she can get her hands on and drawing Julian into her chasm of revenge.

Few directors have as distinct a signature as Refn, who tells the bare bones story of “Only God Forgives” in stops and starts, its minimalistic momentum maintained only by his unflappable confidence. While there are bravura sequences of thrilling action and horrifying bloodshed, Refn lingers in the stillness between these big moments with a dedication that’s nothing short of arduous. At times, “Only God Forgives” feels like Quentin Tarantino blended with Terrence Malick, contrasting unprecedented levels of artistic indulgence with buckets of blood, the slowest moments propped up only by an incredible stylistic palette.

While Cliff Martinez’s score was one of the highlights of “Drive,” his work here is even better, capturing the same moody sense of time and place with a totally different, fresh sound. His rhythmic, engaging score is the most powerful element of the film, keeping some scenes from descending into silliness while pushing others in the realm of mythic awe. Matthew Newman’s editing is similarly effective, communicating the sparse story Refn chooses to include with efficiently cut series of shots, and both the editing and score consistently inject life and spontaneity into Refn’s occasionally trying aesthetic exercise.

The most tragic victim of Refn’s restrained style is Ryan Gosling, whose character isn’t far from a wax statue with the power to squeak out the occasional line of dialogue. Without Gosling’s ability to communicate so much depth with something as simple as a shift in his demeanor or a flash of fear in his eyes, the performance would be a disaster. Julian’s fetish for delayed gratification manages to turn his penchant for inaction into his only real character trait, but on paper, he’s a vacuum, and Gosling struggles to fill the void with the limited charisma Refn allows him to display. Vithaya Pansringarm is terrifying as the film’s villain, striking a counterbalance between menacing, absolute judgment and surprising karaoke skills, but he’s also stranded in Refn’s red-drenched film, giving a great performance in search of juicier material.

The hilariously demented Kristin Scott Thomas is a striking counterpoint, playing Crystal, Julian’s mother, with a relentless, acidic bluster, and she tears into the Oedipal-tinted role with aplomb. Despite the actors doing their best to sell their thinly written arcs, Refn’s script doesn’t do a great job fleshing out their twisted relationship, and the film’s final moments push their issues from metaphorical into the realm of the ridiculously, grotesquely literal.

While “Drive” was a definite breakthrough for Nicolas Winding Refn, “Only God Forgives” is a marked regression into a more contained version of his artistic sensibilities, with his preoccupation with meditative silence threatening to overwhelm his narrative. Without the unfiltered stylistic intoxication Refn infuses into every frame, “Only God Forgives” would be a total misfire, but it manages to skirt by on the power of its aesthetic and the moments when Refn finally unleashes his characters to act out their darkest impulses.
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Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 90 minutes