All my cards on the table. I love the film Drive. I own the dvd, I own the soundtrack, I own the poster, and to be honest, I was a second thought away from owning that satin scorpion racing jacket. I get really frustrated when the now overly cynical, “If something is trying to be cool I’ll automatically hate it” film critic says they despise Drive. It is a perfect example of minimalism done right. Minimalism used in an action/drama film that made it into something fresh and different. So, when I heard that star Ryan Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn were teaming up again, I was excited. However, after watching their new film Only God Forgives, I have to say that this is an example of minimalism done wrong. When word got out of audience members booing and walking out of the premier at Cannes, I was very puzzled. I can always understand not liking a film afterwards, but booing and walking out during, baffles me. What could be so bad? Well, within the first ten minutes there are certainly reasons to warrant a conservative audience uprising. As a whole, the film has subject matter offensive and violent enough to have me second guess the rating. However, the film’s biggest crime for me was the emptiness of it. Only God Forgives provides little in the way of plot and character development. And the crime is, that it is set up to give you so much more.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking. How could you criticize Only God Forgives for using a style that Drive also uses? Well, Drive was originally intended to be another cliched action vehicle much like The Transporter. There was nothing really there originally that we hadn’t seen already in regards to the story and characters. A mysterious rebel who wants to do good but is pulled back into a life of crime to protect the woman he loves. Winding Refn’s decision to pull back on the cliche and make Drive more dramatic and serious and realistic separates it from the rest in the genre. Only God Forgives, on the other hand, is not a traditional action/drama set up. Yes, you could say there is a revenge angle going on. However, the setting of the film, the symbolism of the film, and the creepy family dynamic of the film are all begging to be explored. It really isn’t. In Drive, despite Gosling’s man of few words gimmick, the supporting characters give you something to chew on. Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, and the amazing Albert Brooks fill in the gaps the film’s stoic hero leaves. In Only God Forgives, we are left with only one character that does that. The deplorably offensive Crystal, played to perfection by Kristin Scott Thomas. Unfortunately, she can only fill so many BLANK spaces before you’re left wanting. In Drive, the BLANKS were there but in fewer frequency. When they did show up, because it was material you were familiar with, your imagination could fill them in. So, an uncomfortably sweet conversation in the hallway with Gosling and Carey Mulligan isn’t as jarring. The world of Only God Forgives is very unfamiliar. The characters are very unfamiliar. The situations are very unfamiliar. So, when you’re searching for the motivations and thoughts of a character, you’re just left with a BLANK.
If you think Gosling’s Driver said and expressed little in Drive, just wait until you see Only God Forgives. Julian Thompson feels like a stranger to us throughout. Gosling’s perpetual sphinx-like expression hurts the character more than adds to his mystery. One could assume this was done to heighten the effect of Julian’s later emotional outbursts as was done in Drive. However, Winding Refn’s stripping down of his personality and emotion seems to have passed the breaking point. Though it may be the dialogue fiend in me, but he just seemed like a character that would be better suited talking a good game. He’s a fight promoter for crying out loud! I personally think Gosling is a very good actor and when given more things to do emotionally and expressively, he usually knocks it out of the park. He’s grasping at straws here. The…um…villain I guess (He’s more reactionary if you think about it. And God himself if you REALLY think about it.), played by Vithaya Pansringarm, is another great character with sadly minimized background. It works more for him seeing as the mysterious villain is a familiar concept. However, when the protagonist and antagonist of your story are both practically mute, their dynamic suffers. Drive, again, didn’t have this problem because Albert Brooks filled those BLANKS.
The one true positive and apparent focus of the film is the stunning cinematography. I got a hint of this during the trailer, but it barely scratches the surface of the amount of breathtakingly beautiful shots you’ll see. I haven’t seen scenes this colorfully vibrant and skillful composed since Skyfall. Props should be given to acclaimed cinematographer Larry Smith of Eyes Wide Shut fame and Winding Refn himself. However, the look of the film seems to be the only place where Winding Refn spent his time. There really could have been some great material fleshed out of that script if he wanted.
It is thought to be a good thing to leave the people wanting more. However, a film with too much of too little can run the risk of appearing unclear, disjointed, and lazy. Now, I know Nicolas Winding Refn isn’t lazy. He’s a terrific filmmaker. The style of Only God Forgives seems to be a choice. In my opinion, it wasn’t entirely the right one. Crank up the karaoke machine…roll up your sleeves…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.