In spite of almost four years of praise and awards, I can’t help but linger on the negative reviews for 2011’s Drive. For a film that spent so much time pensively lingering over a steering wheel, or the reflections offered by a rear-view mirror; for a film in which the protagonist was referred to only as ‘Driver’—and which, lest we forget, was titled ‘Drive’—it suffered a sizeable backlash for its distinct lack of driving.
“Yes, there is one big car chase scene. BUT…” one user review on Amazon begins. “There was very little driving in it at all,” another states. It’s easy to forget that—divorced from its early press blowout at Cannes—Nicolas Winding Refn’s film was at first an anomaly to a vast section of the viewing public: an arthouse wolf caught wearing The Fast and the Furious’ sheepskin boots.
I only bring this up because, after an impromptu viewing of Drive’s successor-of-sorts Only God Forgives, I can’t help but consider the extent to which Refn’s films revel in subverting expectations. Pusher defiantly brought affect back to a post-Tarantino gangster landscape, while Bronson dared to relate to its incarcerated subject, and even give him his own song-and-dance routine. Only God Forgives follows suit in that it refuses to follow the convention set by Drive’s successes, and yet is notable for being the first Refn film to have met a widespread negative response.
Like its predecessor, Only God Forgives is accessibly slick: its toxic reds and blues mix effortlessly in the viewer’s eyes, while its attention to negative space and silence is almost a parody of arthouse cinema at large, providing a sign as garish as the colour palette that this is a film with depths waiting to be plundered. Yet whereas Drive utilised Carey Mulligan’s doe-eyed Irene to provide a coherent moral framework, Only God Forgives very rarely offers a similar reprieve.
With Only God Forgives, Refn seems keen to distance himself from Drive: to live up to his self-proclaimed profession as a ‘pornographer’, even if—and perhaps especially if—it means deconstructing the things that facilitated his rise to Hollywood fame.
Since its release, Drive has joined the ranks of Pulp Fiction and The Godfather as ideal poster-fodder in HMV, the sort of bittersweet film that’s just violent enough to carry a sense of danger, and yet simple enough in its construction that it never truly challenges the viewer’s perception of the world around them. Although undoubtedly removed from the norm, the melon-pop of an unfortunate goon’s skull in Drive’s elevator scene is perfectly acceptable, if not enjoyable, because Ryan Gosling’s Driver is in a demonstrable ‘right’. After all, he plays with children and has a nice girlfriend, not to mention a premeditated apathy towards the violent underworld in which he thrives.
I don’t mean to discredit Drive, far from it, I think it’s a great film deserving of its successes, yet stood alongside the rest of Refn’s output, conceptually, it’s surprisingly toothless.
With this considered, Only God Forgives is Refn’s welcome return from the dentist. One of the core conceits upon which the film operates is the belief that Ryan Gosling’s protagonist, Julian, is a pair of capable hands. Gosling’s return as a protagonist predicates the assumption that Julian shares the Driver’s hidden capacity for calculated acts of violence, supported by the character’s first appearance, running a Muay Thai martial arts ring.
The murder of Julian’s older brother brings him to Bangkok, where, aided by his mother, he gradually works his way towards attaining revenge. As the film progresses, the viewer comes to learn that Julian is an American expatriate, a killer with ties to a drug-smuggling empire, which, combined with his unhinged silence, establishes a hidden self, lingering just out of view and waiting to be unleashed, again drawing easy comparison with the violent temper of Drive’s Driver.
However, around forty-five minutes into the film, the viewer is made conscious of the vacuity of all this machismo, forced to watch Julian flounder in his one and only fight scene, in which he is beaten to the point of disfiguration. It draws sly reference to promotional shots for the film, dramatic pictures of a beaten and bloodied Gosling which embody a new context when you discover that they depict not a downtrodden hero, but a mere man irretrievably broken.
Julian’s subsequent decision to save a child from death, one would think, would redeem his character. Yet it proves to be little more than a footnote to the character’s downfall. Throughout the film’s second half, Julian wrings himself through a series of debasing acts of surrender, a number of explicitly symbolic acts that are easily identifiable as a Shakespearean absolution of guilt, and an acquiescence to his own culpability within the criminal underworld.
It’s a turn against expectation that seems designed to leave its viewer frustrated. By the film’s end, our hero has gradually become subservient to a cause that one can naturally assume to be a clear moral ‘evil’, while a rape and countless murders have gone unpunished. All the while, the antagonist, the murderous police Lieutenant Chang, is always allowed the final word, culminating in a karaoke finish in which he laments the entire journey’s necessity.
It is perhaps this gross subversion of dramatic resolution that has earned the film such a negative reception. Whereas acclaimed films like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood both take similar approaches to issues of morality and justice, they do so with a bittersweet commentary on the nature of evil, and take time to explore the possibility and the duty of good on their way there. Only God Forgives, on the other hand, only seems to forward a humbling message of ignoble surrender, one which is alien to most cinematic sensibilities. It’s a bold concept, albeit one that comes with a hefty price: the film’s slower pacing, combined with its purposefully anticlimactic reveal, leaves the film feeling truncated; as if it only has the one note to play.
Luckily, the journey towards that one note is visually stunning. Refn has amplified the neon palette of Drive, drenching the screen in deep reds and yellows similar to an early Dario Argento work, paying clear debts to the film’s origins in sleazy European cinema. Similarly, Cliff Martinez’ soundtrack taps into the same gritty ambient electronica that made Drive so memorable, and these surface elements are perhaps the film’s saving grace, justifying its feature length, although arguably condemning it as an exercise in style over substance.
Ultimately, despite an admirable intention, Only God Forgives feels decidedly hollow. It successfully acts against expectations, yet does so at the expense of both its viewer’s time and its own coherence. It is, at the very least, a reassuring statement of intent from Refn; that even having tasted success, he should still remain committed to playing against type.