This year, Ryan Gosling has returned to the well to work with two directors who came up aces for him on their last films.
Earlier this year, Gosling gave a magnetic performance in The Place Beyond the Pines for director Derek Cianfrance, maker of the excellent Blue Valentine. Pines is one of the year's best pictures so far, and a movie worth revisiting multiple times.
Now comes Only God Forgives from Nicolas Winding Refn, who made the masterpiece, Drive. While Drive cemented Gosling as one of the better young actors on screen today, Forgives winds up being a complete nonevent.
This movie has virtually nothing to offer. Gosling plays Julian, a Bangkok drug smuggler whose brother is killed by a local cop. At the urging of his foul-mouthed mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), he seeks revenge on his brother's killer, resulting in a fight where he gets his ass supremely kicked.
That's it. That's the movie. Ryan Gosling gets his ass kicked while Thomas curses up a storm. Some people get their arms cut off, some people get worse, and that is all.
Other than Thomas talking in a way that would make Harvey Keitel blush, there isn't much for dialogue in this movie. There are a couple of dreamy karaoke sequences that feel as if they were lifted from the cutting room floor on the last David Lynch film.
The word out of the Cannes film festival this year is that the movie received boos mixed with a standing ovation. Those who hated the film cited it for gratuitous violence that went beyond the realm of excusable.
The violence is pretty extreme, but most folks will handle it. The real problem here is that there is no discernible story to invest in. The movie has no true sense of direction. Refn got a crew together, gave his performers little to say or do, and delivers a revenge story in which we care about nobody.
This will draw comparisons to Drive, and it should. Drive was a movie that announced that Refn was a force to be reckoned with. Characters actually said things together, Gosling looked like he had a clue, and Albert Brooks provided dark humor. The shimmering soundtrack and excellent cinematography made it a complete, palpable film.
Only God Forgives is one of those impressionistic affairs where a director thinks he's made a movie simply because he went out, shot some stuff, and edited it together. There's some sort of symbolism crap going on with shots of hands and touching, Refn's weak attempt to make his film "deeper." All the hand stuff really does is help get the film's running time closer to 90 minutes.
Vithaya Pansringarm plays Chang, Julian's nemesis and the one chopping people's arms off. His thing is to give people choices—in one case, he puts a man in a room with the man who killed his daughter—and then he punishes them by taking their arms. IMDB.com says that Refn directed Pansringarm by telling him he was God before every shot. Whatever.
I get excited when I hear an apparently good director is doing something experimental. Nothing had me more excited this movie year than the idea of Gosling and Refn together again.
After watching Only God Forgives, I'm thinking these two need a break from each other. All they've come up with is an 90-minute bore fest about a mopey drug guy with serious mommy issues.
I'm also thinking Refn should go back to directing other people's screenplays, as he did with Drive. The screenplay for this one is all his, and the blame for its profound dumbness lies squarely on his shoulders.