‘Only God Forgives’ is incoherent and tantalizing

Rating: 3/5

Title: Only God Forgives

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Release date: May 30, 2013

Genre: Thriller

Country: Denmark

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Director Nicolas Winding Refn creates worlds of color. The characters in them are hyper real, especially Driver in “Drive,” sometimes bordering on alien. “Only God Forgives” is an extension of that language. The protagonist Julian (Ryan Gosling, “Gangster Squad”) is even more stoic than Driver. But where Driver’s stoicism suggested an inner life, Julian’s suggests nothing at all.

This problem extends to every character. Even Kristin Scott Thomas (“In the House”) fails to liven Crystal, Julian and his brother Billy’s (Tom Burke, “An Enemy to Die For”) mother.

Billy rapes and murders an underage prostitute, and is killed by the girl’s father. Police Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, “The Mark: Redemption”) gets wind of the case and arrests the father, killing him for allowing his daughter to be a sex worker. Crystal learns of Billy’s death and tasks Julian with finding the men who killed him.

Like its spiritual predecessor “Drive,” “Only God Forgives” makes more emotional than literal sense. Gosling plays a walking “Kuleshov Effect.” He seems little affected by the horrors on screen, but blank face allows for plenty of projection. The problem is that his stoicism lacks depth. It implies so little about his inner life that it loses its meaning. Gosling, as a result, looks like he’s sleepwalking through the role.

Burke, Thomas, and Pansringarm don’t fare any better. Burke dies too early on to have an impact, and Thomas is all vitriol and creepy sexuality with little else. Pansringarm’s quietude has an eerie power, quite unlike his costars, but there’s little beyond that. No one in the movie has any real depth. This extends to the story as well. Metaphorically, it could be about man’s battle against God. Literally, a man is killed and then more men are killed as a result. The narrative is too thin to be interesting.

That being said, it is a gorgeous movie. As per usual, Refn’s color palette is rich. Working with only primary colors, the world becomes a fever dream of reds and blues. By the end, the visuals become the movie’s only redeeming quality.

With little in the way of character or story, “Only God Forgives” rides on its visual luster alone. Gosling, Thomas, Burke, and Pansringarm are boring, with only Pansringarm holding any viewer interest. His quietude, however, fails to save the movie. The feverish surrealism of “Only God Forgives,” amplified by its concise visual palette, is reason enough to see it. Beyond that, expect little else.