Oscar Wilde once advocated a curious notion: ‘All art is quite useless’. A sentiment which, in many respects, can be applied to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, a neon-drenched nightmare which is every bit as ostentatious as it is daring. A film which, paradoxically, is rarely a film, but a glorified PowerPoint presentation of electric aesthetics – a compelling case of style over substance.
Julian Thompson (Ryan Gosling), is a US expatriate part of a drug smuggling operation. A disquieting man, Julian is brother to Billy, a violent sociopath who is murdered after killing an underage prostitute. When their mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives in Bangkok, she demands Julian to seek the men that killed her son; this is a story of vengeance and deep-seated mother issues, set in the criminal underworld of seedy Thailand.
First and foremost, this is some picturesque cinematography from Larry Smith – each scene drips and crackles with style, with rooms saturated in blood-stained reds and chilling blues. Beneath the thick sheen of incandescence and fluorescence is a vacuous tale, but the plot, or the lack thereof, is redundant; Refn makes for a contemporary Stanley Kubrick, directing and painting a motion picture with tracking shots as harrowing as The Shining, and plenty of the old ultra-violence à la A Clockwork Orange. As Alex DeLarge himself would say: ‘Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh’.
The Gosling name will assuredly lure many into this neon nightmare, but it’s about as much of a Ryan Gosling film as No Country for Old Men is a Josh Brolin film. No, like Javier Bardem‘s minacious character in the Coen brothers classic, this is about Lieutenant Chang: the Angel of Vengeance, divine retribution personified – a supernatural performance from Vithaya Pansringarm.
Brevity is a double-edged sword. The ever-smouldering Gosling remains silently stoic, sulking for most of the film, effectively reprising his role from Drive and exhibiting another cool performance to cement his indie stardom. The depraved dialogue, however, greatly illuminates how underwritten the narrative and characters actually are. Ergo, to many it may seem almost obnoxious, a contrived stylisation which stubbornly refuses to conform to the conventions of other crime-thrillers, or indeed, reality.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, and these characters are so very cold. Inhuman almost, like Dorian Gray himself. As a result. It’s not nearly as accessible as the adrenaline-fuelled Drive. The ending, meanwhile, is as abstruse as it is disappointing. Some might say it’s anticlimactic, but the film never quite builds enough impetus to suggest there should be a superior alternative.
Art – as impressionistic as it is subjective – a visual spectacle which inevitably polarizes and divides. As for Only God Forgives: is it pretentious? Certainly. Is it perfection? Certainly not. But only God could deny the fact that this is art. Not high art, necessarily, but art nevertheless.