Following the popular and critical success of Drive, Ryan Gosling reteams with director Nicolas Winding Refn for a film that is both more and less of the same: more vengeance, torture, blows to the head, and less movement, less dialogue, less significance. From its stately depiction of a neon-and-bokeh Bangkok (shot by Eyes Wide Shut‘s Larry Smith), to its hyper-Freudian, return-to-the-womb conclusion (cribbed from George Bataille’s Ma mère), Only God Forgives is a great-looking but stilted drama, painfully obvious, studiously enigmatic, and boringly sadistic. Mimicking his mentor Gaspar Noe’s candy-coloured clublands, Refn’s Bangkok is a dreamy backdrop to a story of stoic masculinity and Medean motherhood, against which Gosling refines and reduces his pose of impassive heroism, but it is also borderline racist, and at least tiresomely orientalist; the setting, mostly inside dazzling, rapey nightclubs, sees Thailand as a place of uncommon cruelty and skewed honour codes. Antagonist Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is a fearsome devil, and while he looks fine and graceful when in violent action, the rest of the time Refn seems to have directed him to sleepwalk blankly to his marks, and his obscure motives brand him as an old-fashioned stereotype of the “inscrutable oriental“. The film’s women are gift-wrapped sex workers, brutalised daughters or angelic whores, as if their essential passivity is to provide a decorative counterpoint to Kristin Scott Thomas’s forceful matriarch. Maybe they’re meant to represent the absolute objectification of women, but really they’re set-dressing for a film that is more interested in men as caged creatures of irruptive violence.The problem here is not that the film is too stylised or enraptured with its decor to really convey brutal spontaneity: we could interpret this aesthetic as a visual analogue of Chang’s methodical precision, or Julian’s suppressed rage; the problem is that the symbolism, and the film’s thesis on tortured masculinity, is too blunt to be stimulating. Refn’s prurient fascination with elaborate bursts of violence used to be his distinctive calling card – it is now his tired brand, a portentous cinéma du head injuries.
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