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by Eric Kohn
May 22, 2013 11:59 AM
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Cannes: How 'Only God Forgives' Suggests Ryan Gosling's Schtick Has Worn Thin

"Only God Forgives" RADiUS-TWC
Ryan Gosling is a talented actor who has faced the same challenge most distinctive performers inevitably must confront: the danger of turning into a walking cliché. To that end, the decision to avoid traditional blockbuster vehicles in favor of Nicolas Winding Refn's ultra-violent B-movie-turned-art-film "Drive" was a masterstroke. Woefully ignored by the Academy, his uber-macho turn played like a wry comment on the inherent absurdity of male stardom. Unfortunately, by re-teaming with Refn for the far less inventive genre exercise "Only God Forgives," Gosling has tumbled into the exact trappings that "Drive" smartly assailed.

"This isn't a bad performance; it's not even acting in the traditional sense."
The movie is like one thin satiric lark inexplicably slowed down to the point of lethargy. Gosling plays Julian, a Bangkok-based drug smuggler whose psychotic brother is murdered in an early scene after he rapes and kills a young woman. Enter their hilariously psychotic mother (Kristen Scott Thomas), eager to seek revenge against the girl's mother who committed the initial act of vengeance despite Julian's insistence that the guy had a right. "I'm sure he had a good reason for it," she insists. A scowling, foul-mouthed camp figure, Thomas' character strikes a telling contrast to Gosling's zombified gaze. She's enjoyably blunt (comparing his sons' penis sizes at the dinner table) and utterly insane, whereas Gosling seems at first poised to transition into something of a hero and instead remains something of a robot. 

READ MORE: The Playlist Reviews "Only God Forgives"

He's not alone. Almost everyone moves at a snail's pace in "Only God Forgives." Refn stages each scene with the self-serious bleakness of a Robert Bresson picture, but applies such a cheap, one-note premise that his air quote approach to art house aesthetics reeks of student film indulgence. That doesn't mean that "Only God Forgives" fails to offer the occasional cheap delights, most of which involve rampant bloodshed; the red-tinted scenes shot at the bordellos and seedy hotel rooms where much of the action takes place thoroughly enhance the grimy feel. Yet Refn appears more intent on making an actual cheesy fight movie in the stereotypical language of the genre rather than using it for his own means.

"Only God Forgives" Radius
As a result, Gosling's ability to riff on the exalting of the male body has been downgraded to prosaic stares and barely the semblance of personality. In one scene, he actively fingers the prostitute whom he eventually, maybe falls for, but even when aroused his face reads as if he's been inexplicably lobotomized. This isn't a bad performance; it's not even acting in the traditional sense. Gosling has been downgraded to a prop.

READ MORE: Kristin Scott Thomas Talks 'Only God Forgives' at Cannes: 'This kind of film is really not my thing'

Refn usually has tremendous success when it comes to developing off-kilter characters, as demonstrated by the near-literary depths of his "Pusher" trilogy and the similarly expressionistic Viking tale "Valhalla Rising," which has much of the same eccentric brutality found in "Only God Forgives" but uses it to create a phantasmagorical alternate world. The new movie is too bogged down by rudimentary style gags to leave room for anything else. There are many deaths portrayed in unflinching, sometimes alarmingly grotesque details in "Only God Forgives," but Gosling's skill is its only true casualty. 

Criticwire grade: C


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33 Comments

  • Ben Tipple | August 6, 2013 5:30 PMReply

    Why is this review so focussed on Gosling? If anybody approaches this movie with only Gosling in mind, they aer bound to miss the point. The review itself points out that Gosling has been downgraded to a prop - perhaps that is the point. Perhaps we should be looking around the "lead" (although I would argue that there are two characters which easily surpass in lead status) at the merits of the film. A lead performance can definitely affect the quality of the film, but when that performance is not supposed to be the focal point, films can be more than one actor.

  • Jerry | June 23, 2013 4:17 PMReply

    "oh, cool." let's you know he doesn't make films for everyone. If he did he'd direct Fast and the Furious type films. It's art. It's objective. I respect he does what he wants. It's independent and attractive. It's a fantasy you can't have when you aren't happy. Keep up the good work.

  • Henry | May 24, 2013 7:07 PMReply

    I managed to see the film at cannes and was absolutely blown away by it. It's been 2 days and I still can't get it out of my mind. It has the best cinematography I have seen from any film since the start of this millennium (not surprising at it is Kubrick's former DP , Larry Smith), and if you thought the soundtrack of drive was amazing, cliff Martinez's score will blow your mind .

    I don't know what the reviewer was watching but I thought the acting was marvellously executed. Good acting does not always have to be over exuberant talkative roles, and Gosling shows so much emotion,pain and anguish through body language and in his facial expression that it can be easy to dismiss or gloss over by critics which understate it.

    Regarding the violence, I don't think it's that big of deal. Yes it is hyper violent and features some of really gruesome images on film but the over reaction reminds me somewhat initial reactions to A clockwork orange. Critics tend to judge mold breaking films like these too quickly before its sunk in yet and mistakenly view it. (Cannes has a history of doing this. They also booed taxi driver and tree of life).

    Overall I would say this is my favourite film of 2013 so far and I have no doubt that some of these critics will be eating their own words in the future when this film reaches wild cult status.

  • Lou | June 9, 2013 8:23 AM

    Please, please cease comparing this film to Clockwork Orange. We go from the stars (Clockwork Orange) to the stables. Not comparable in any way: soundtrack (magnificent), acting, lighting, rhythm, editing, etc., make it an artistic and groundbreaking (1971!) film. If you do not mind violence, then you should try to catch We Need to Talk About Kevin or Eastern Promises, where the history of violence (another good film) is meaningful, acting is great and the attention of spectators are ensured. Gosling shows emotion, pain and anguish through body language? Really? I wonder what Refn will dish out next. The man is shrewd. He knows that blood&violence are pretty much incentives, rather than deterrents, especially if 'contrabanded' as artistic endeavours. However, de gustibus non est disputandum.

  • Please | May 25, 2013 12:25 AM

    bahaha...people will delusionally see what they want. This was awful and Gosling does NOTHING in the movie. He communicates nothing because there's no character for him to play and we don't care one second about him. Indeed he's nothing but a prop here. The writing is terrible and features some of the dumbest scenes in a movie in a while. It's called petulant macho-fantasy garbage not art.

  • Jake | May 24, 2013 6:33 PMReply

    His script for How to Catch a Monster is sooo awful. Like a cheesy Twilight version of Blue Velvet but even dumber and worse than how that sounds.

  • moo boo | May 24, 2013 4:52 PMReply

    this writer will someday regret writing this stupid fugging review.

  • KSD | May 24, 2013 6:25 PM

    No he won''t, however he and 99% of the hopefully few people who sit though this piece of crap will regret it. And no, it won't be revered 10 years from now.

  • noel | May 24, 2013 3:28 PMReply

    Smirking and fidgeting is his Schick, and it has indeed worn very thin...

  • - | May 24, 2013 2:09 PMReply

    And I don't see what his shtick is supposed to be. He was like this in 'Drive' (although it's not like his face was blank the whole time. Most of his expressions are pretty subtly different, but if you want a not-so-subtle example, look for the elevator scene), but he was completely different in Lars, Blue Valentine and Half Nelson. This shtick seems to be limited to his Refn collaborations, of which there are two.

  • Ben | May 24, 2013 6:28 PM

    He is NOT different though. All of those performances have the same posturing for the camera and predictable repetitive mannerisms. You always know he's "acting" (god he was hammy in Blue Valentine). He's mediocre and I'm glad more people are finally starting to see it.

  • - | May 24, 2013 2:04 PMReply

    I think he's one of the best actors of his generation, but yeah, he doesn't seem very good from the clips I've seen. Oh well, everyone's bound to have a dud once in a while.

  • Ben | May 24, 2013 6:26 PM

    Once in a while? He's on a string of duds. And he's the most overrated, overpraised actor of his generation.

  • sidneys | May 23, 2013 3:02 PMReply

    He hasn't "avoided traditional blockbuster vehicles" - Gangster Squad?! (yeah, that was really highbrow, and his worst acting yet, by the way). He just hasn't been in a certifiably big hit movie. Ever.

  • yuri | May 23, 2013 11:35 AMReply

    This movie was lacking coherence. Your review brings this up.

  • MFD | May 22, 2013 9:35 PMReply

    There is no -- repeat, no -- "self-serious bleakness" in any Robert Bresson picture. What there is is genuine seriousness, which seems to terriby so many people now, especially in the film world.

  • Sara | May 22, 2013 8:26 PMReply

    Your review convinced to Avoid Gosling. Previous movies were a real disappointment

  • Sara | May 22, 2013 8:26 PMReply

    Your review convinced to Avoid Gosling. Previous movies were a real dissapointment

  • Brian | May 22, 2013 4:51 PMReply

    Wow wayy too much upfront info in this review. For those looking forward to this film, you could have easily skipped spilling plot points

  • Mick | May 22, 2013 4:23 PMReply

    Wow, even Indiewire is sick of Gosling. Never really liked him, can't say I'm not a little happy that more people are starting to realize that he's not that good.

  • MDL | May 22, 2013 3:29 PMReply

    One IndieWire critic likes it; one doesn't. The critics are divided. Par for the course for the best movies. It means it's a must see.

  • West | May 22, 2013 4:18 PM

    Jessica clearly did not like it. That B came out of nowhere. She literally says it has little to offer.

  • gweeb | May 22, 2013 2:50 PMReply

    As one comment put it "The amount of relevance on this website has surely worn thin. Is this a serious community of columnists anymore? or just biased fan-boys?"

  • theresa | May 22, 2013 2:56 PM

    Your sense of self unjustified superior intellect jumps out of your comment. Obviously you did not read the piece. which presents a clear picture of what is mediocre in the film.

  • freed | May 22, 2013 2:49 PMReply

    I Agree with your review but not with the generous grade this is beyond mediocre to paraphrase an early . comment. I do not understand the criteria by which Cannes measure the quality of the films they select to incorporate to the festival.

  • tom | May 22, 2013 2:49 PMReply

    Your review is right on the money

  • Rich | May 22, 2013 1:50 PMReply

    He was never that great IMO (and he was equally mediocre and predictable in the heavy handed, disappointing "Pines"). He was more great at picking roles/films that suited him, which deluded people into thinking he was this great talent that he never was. And he hasn't resisted blockbusters (Gangster Squad and Crazy Stupid Love). Even in Half Nelson, Lars, and Blue Valentine, the films his fans always mention to his detractors, he relied more on his co-stars. But the bad, forgettable films are starting to pile up on him and he's been exposed.

    The media/internet have played a huge part in hurting him too. It's impossible to watch him now and not hear "Hey Girl" and just laugh at him. He's become an internet joke.

  • Queen | May 22, 2013 2:55 PM

    lol hey girl lol

  • Chaz | May 22, 2013 1:15 PMReply

    This is the first of many bandwagon crap talk reviews to come. If I know Refn, "Only God Forgives" is a well crafted piece of art thats probably not viewer friendly, and due to that fact It'll get bad reviews. Everything in the film has a purpose, including Gosling's silence. This is from a film-makers perspective anyway...

  • Akira | May 22, 2013 2:40 PM

    Refn said so himself, watch the Cannes press conference, there's alot more to this film.

  • D | May 22, 2013 1:42 PM

    Well, do you now Refn?

  • Akira | May 22, 2013 1:07 PMReply

    "How 'Only God Forgives' suggests Ryan Goslings schtick has worn thin"? The amount of relevance on this website has surely worn thin. Is this a serious community of columnists anymore? or just biased fan-boys?

  • serpico | May 22, 2013 12:45 PMReply

    worn thin with Refn, maybe, but I sure as hell loved him in "Place Beyond the Pines". For some reason people think the only two movies Gosling ever acted in was "Drive" and "Only God Forgives"