There aren’t many films like Drive. Sure, you don’t have to look far to find ’80s-inspired throwbacks with enough neon lighting and synth soundtracks to delight any cinephile nostalgic for an era they never experienced, but Drive’s delicate mix of art house sensibilities pushed through the filter of a commercial blockbuster, making it that rare concoction that appealed to both highbrow critics and general audiences. One minute Nicolas Winding Refn was walking away from Cannes Film Festival with the Best Director award in his pocket, and the next he was watching his latest film gross $81 million at the global box office — a whopping figure for something that is still firmly entrenched on the art house side of the debate. Suddenly he was thrust into the Hollywood spotlight with offers to direct tentpole films like Wonder Woman and Spectre, but Refn was never one to take the obvious approach. Instead, he turned his attention towards Only God Forgives, a decidedly more personal project that would set the tone for the rest of his career.
Based on first impressions, Only God Forgives may appear like it should be titled Drive 2, given how many similarities they have: an expressionist world bathed in neon, a synth-heavy score courtesy of Cliff Martinez, long periods of silence interrupted by quick bursts of violence, Ryan Gosling back in his most famous role as “man who barely speaks or changes their facial expression.” No doubt Lionsgate was hoping to repeat Drive’s lightning-in-a-bottle success, but it quickly became apparent that the opposite was happening. Its premiere at Cannes was met with boos and a highly polarizing reaction, while its general release saw it tanking at the box office amidst an even worse critical reception (the direst of which simply described it as “unwatchable”). Before long it had faded away as “the other Refn/Gosling collaboration,” and these days is considered little more than a footnote while its older brother continues to garner fame.
‘Only God Forgives’ Failed to Replicate What Made ‘Drive’ a Success
But why did Only God Forgives receive such a poor reaction despite aping a formula that had been proven so successful? It might not win any points for originality, but that hasn’t stopped plenty of derivative films from getting the critics’ seal of approval. A lot of it stems from its plot, or rather, its lack of one. The film centers around Julian (Gosling), the owner of a boxing club in Bangkok. One night his brother, Billy (Tom Burke), rapes and murders an underage prostitute before being killed himself in an act of vigilantism authorized by police lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Billy’s friends are quick to retaliate, and soon an endless cycle of violence has broken out as both sides seek vengeance against the other — a feeling bolstered by the arrival of the brothers’ nefarious mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) — with Julian thrust into the war’s most prominent role against his wishes. There’s a lot to complain about with the plot, with the most obvious criticism being just how threadbare it is. Things quickly become repetitive as violence begets more violence with little indication that we’re heading towards something more substantial, and even with a runtime of only 90 minutes it still feels overlong.
The biggest issue is just how mean-spirited it is. There’s no inherent requirement for films to be fun, but the unrelenting bleakness of Only God Forgives which waltzes straight over the boundary of acceptability will turn away most viewers in minutes. Drive was hardly a relaxing stroll down a country lane, but it also had a flicker of light in the form of Carey Mulligan’s Irene, the struggling next-door neighbor whose desire to give her son a better life became the linchpin with which to justify all this carnage. Only God Forgives lacks an equivalent moral anchor, resulting in a film populated entirely by reprehensible people who view bloodshed as the answer to all of life’s problems. Maybe that’s the point, but when later sections seem to be expecting you to care about them despite none of them coming across as real people, you start questioning what on earth Refn is trying to achieve.
But Refn is hardly known for his Kaufman-esque plots, and he’s always made a habit of keeping the focus on his unique presentational skills. Watching a Nicolas Winding Refn film is like being transported to a dreamlike realm where the works of David Lynch merge with a twisted neon version of German Expressionism, and Only God Forgives sees Refn pushing this style to the extreme. If you liked Ryan Gosling’s menacing command of silence in Drive, get ready for him to crank it up to 11 with a character who might as well be mute. He has a grand total of 17 lines and spends the rest of his time staring into space, making it hard to get invested in his dilemma despite the film expecting you to do so. In fact, everyone in Bangkok seems to have been hit by an affliction that prevents them from communicating in anything but blank stares — a common technique in Refn films, but when combined with the way everyone meanders through the scenery like their batteries are in dire need of changing, it’s enough to test anyone’s patience.
For All Its Faults, There’s Still a Lot to Admire
And yet, there’s something admirable about Only God Forgives. It takes a brave director to follow up their most acclaimed and accessible film with something that resembles the cinematic equivalent of an endurance test. It’s even braver to adhere so closely to the formula of said film while also distorting it just enough that elements that were once praised are now the subject of much ire. The neon lighting is even bolder, the bloody violence is even more shocking, the protracted silences are even more (er…) protracted. It’s rather mesmerizing to behold, and reaffirms what a skillful balancing act Drive was. This may be a case of an artist failing to understand what people liked about their work, but Refn has always exhibited such levels of precision that it’s hard to believe he does anything without careful planning. Instead, it comes across as a deliberate attempt to alienate his newly acquired fans so that he can return to his comfort zone as Denmark’s most gut-wrenching director. Call it genius, call it madness, but it’s something few directors would be confident to do.
In a few months Only God Forgives will celebrate its 10th birthday, and revisiting it today makes its stronger aspects shine so much clearer. It’s easy to overlook what a phenomenal worldbuilder Refn is, with the version of Bangkok he’s trapped his characters in appearing to exist halfway down a spiral to hell, all shot under a sinister red glow that emanates from no discernible source. It’s a stunning creation, and when overlaid with Martinez’s hypnotic score, you have an audiovisual experience that rivals anything on the market. Then there’s Scott Thomas channeling Lady Macbeth if she’d been reincarnated as a sadistic crime boss in a performance that single-handedly earns Only God Forgives a recommendation. Her Oedipus-inspired relationship with Julian is as engrossing as it is revolting, and most of their history unsaid is one of the few times his silence proves beneficial. Refn has always had a knack for unearthing an actor’s hidden talents (see also Albert Brooks in Drive), and what he manages to achieve with Scott Thomas is nothing short of a triumph.
‘Only God Forgives’ Built the Foundations for the Rest of Refn’s Career
Retrospective analysis of Only God Forgives skews kinder than its initial bout of reviews, but sadly this came too late to undo the damage. Its critical drubbing was enough to kill his chances at making another big-budget feature overnight, but given that Refn has made a career out of high-class exploitation films that were never destined to sit well with general audiences, it’s unlikely he cares. His 2016 film The Neon Demon continued his mission of pushing the boundaries of good taste, with scenes of cannibalism, naked women showering in blood, and Jena Malone having sex with a corpse. Reviews were once again polarizing, although a tad more positive than last time (perhaps because anyone watching would have a clearer idea of what to expect). Meanwhile, his recent forays into television with Amazon’s Too Old to Die Young and Netflix’s Copenhagen Cowboy have seen him testing the limits of the diehard fans who are still sticking around. A slow-paced grind is manageable at 90 minutes, but when such lengths are the runtime of just one episode you start to wonder if Refn is doing all of this as part of an elaborate prank.
Looking back on everything he’s done since Drive, it’s clear that Refn has no desire to return to the land of critical and commercial success. Let’s not forget this is the same man who thought The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a good pick for a first date and has a filmography that regularly evokes the equally polarizing work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, so the idea of him slamming on the brakes and directing a nice crowd-pleaser was always silly. He’s an outsider who accidentally broke big, and while you won’t catch him complaining about all the people who admire his work, ultimately he makes films for himself. Nothing proves that better than Only God Forgives. It’s a mess, but also one that is often breathtaking and always fascinating, curated by an artist in total control of their craft. Its unwavering commitment to its own vision is a philosophy that Refn has refused to back down from since, and while the result will not be to everyone’s taste, no work of art is. As a piece of entertainment most people would be better off looking elsewhere, but as a 90-minute thesis statement about what his career would be like going forward, it’s absolutely perfect.