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by Eric Kohn
July 18, 2013 9:01 AM
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Review: How 'Only God Forgives' Suggests Ryan Gosling's Shtick Has Grown 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 bleak pose 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 reduced 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 abruptly 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, but Gosling's skill is its only true casualty. 

Criticwire grade: C

HOW WILL IT PLAY? "Only God Forgives" opens nationwide on Friday through RADiUS-TWC. Though critical reactions might be a little more hospitable than when the movie opened at the Cannes Film Festival, the main draw for most moviegoers will be Gosling and the interest in Refn's work from "Drive," both of which should help the film perform strongly in its first weekend if not long beyond that.

A version of this review ran during the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
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17 Comments

  • Leo | July 31, 2013 10:03 AMReply

    It might be worth pointing out that Julian doesn't actually finger the prostitute. As is highlighted throughout the film, he wishes he could act a certain way, take charge of the situation. The whole point of the Julian figure is that he is passive, only following his mother's commands and caught in his own dream-like purgatory. In regards to his character, Gosling's passive performance is perfectly fitting and adequately acted.

    Also, I believe you got your genders mixed up a couple of times:
    "revenge against the girl's mother"
    "comparing his sons' penis sizes"

  • Charlie | July 27, 2013 9:44 AMReply

    All of you commenting with such hate and ignorance disgusts me. Refin has no purpose to life? It's a film! If you don't like it, then talk about where you think it went wrong. If you don't like Ryan's performance then don't bash all of his brilliant ones. You all sound like pretentious pricks who do nothing with their lives but talk fouly about those who do. Grow up

  • ernest | July 22, 2013 5:31 PMReply

    This movie showed that behind all the supposed "talent" of Gosling there is just a clever, sophisticated PR machine. How can you grade the film with a C. It just a collection of disconnected frames!

  • T-H | July 21, 2013 12:45 PMReply

    this movie sucked big hairy potato beans... the guy who made it should stop asap..... and ryan should stop acting in his movies asap..... or don't, not sure anyone will care.... I was so excited for this... what a disappointment... just like drive, this movie literally could have been 20 minutes long.... if this is suppose to be art or something I hope it's not for profit.... seriously what a flaming piece of actual turd.

  • j | July 20, 2013 10:47 AMReply

    This is a horrible film with a actor who's been fed to us as someone with actual talent .The reality is he doesnt have talent .This movie deserves a F rating if it were left up to me sure there are some.Who will make the arguement that Nic is doing his own there in lies the problem he's a student film maker.He's small time hes transient his life means nothing just like his movies mean nothing.He likes to bathe in his own narcissism and it shows in all his works if thats the case .Why not stick to doing local films why even submit to a film festival why do you need to do a film for and audience at all.You could make films for yourself entertaining yourself which is what hes all about.
    He's a talented hes sure as shit isnt creative and he's the furthest thing from being artistic hes a hack;so is gosling.

  • Charlie | July 27, 2013 9:45 AM

    Hey j , how much does your life suck ?

  • Viet | July 19, 2013 3:57 PMReply

    Many film critics have become accustomed to making snap judgements on artworks, publishing insta-reviews dictated by deadlines as if there isn't room to ponder and interpret a film after viewing it. There’s closed-mindedness in this box office-obsessed, Rotten Tomatoes-age of film criticism that seeks to punish audacity in cinema. Only God Forgives has bore the brunt of this head on, with tabloid-esque ‘disaster’ headlines and surface-level analyses that do the artist, the film and the practice of film criticism a great disservice. Art isn't binary. It defies categories like 'awesome' or ‘terrible’.

    Thankfully, Refn doesn’t give a damn about what the mainstream thinks of his work. One only needs to look back through his filmography, to films like Bronson and Valhalla Rising to know that Drive, his mainstream breakthrough, is the anomaly in his legacy thus far. Drive is a pulpy, pop-art classic, and on the surface his latest film looks to continue in that vein. While both films are indeed violent thrillers, Only God Forgives, with its relentlessly bleak vision of a black-hearted, neon-hued Sodom and Gomorrah-inspired Bangkok, makes Drive look like Cannonball Run by comparison.

    Only God Forgives is not a safe movie. It’s a film that deals in extremes, where the price for inhumanity is paid in flesh and blood. This is Refn joining the ranks of cinema's crazy genius elite; a place occupied by the likes of Gaspar Noé, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Lars Von Trier and David Lynch. In a world where film is getting treated more like product and less like art, a movie like this should be savoured. With Only God Forgives, Refn has delivered another masterpiece, one that will hopefully get its due in years to come.

    (Review Taken from neon maniacs website)

  • nate | July 18, 2013 5:32 PMReply

    You really hit it on : Gosling performance is obscure an lifeless. As a previous commenter states, maybe he believes in the PR that manufactured is fame.

  • andrew | July 18, 2013 2:38 PMReply

    let's not forget, he started out as a mouseketeer, maybe he's been trying to burn that patina off his image ever since, he's good, but this makes him seem shallow, perhaps too aware of his own PR rather than his acting talent, which is solid (not formidable, but solid) after all is said and done.

  • Lily | July 18, 2013 4:06 PM

    Yes, perhaps. Gosling's style of brood-and-stare acting of at least the last couple years is hollow and lifeless, and it makes me think the buzz around him is more a media creation than anything backed by deep talent. Do I need to see him in Lars and the Real Girl or some other movie? Because the Cianfrance and Refn films, and even Half Nelson, do not convince me that he is anything more than competent.

  • yuri | July 18, 2013 1:15 PMReply

    Good actors produce mediocre movies sometimes. This is Ryan's turn

  • Charlie | July 27, 2013 9:46 AM

    Well said buddy.

  • fruma | July 18, 2013 1:13 PMReply

    The film portrays a scenario in the first 2 minutes the rest of the film is devoted to trivialize it. What a disappointment. Your review is right on the money.

  • stampece | July 18, 2013 11:42 AMReply

    Fanboy automatons getting riled up in the comments section.

  • Lucas | July 18, 2013 11:31 AMReply

    You've described Drive as a"pretentiousness" and in my opinion it was a masterpiece so I am not going to listen any reviews from you. Obviously you have no f....n clue. Peace out

  • Rick | July 18, 2013 9:35 AMReply

    I disagree. Julian is a different character than the others Gosling has played. He is not invincible or even likable. I think you are confusing that change for something else

  • thedudeabides | July 18, 2013 9:05 AMReply

    Maybe your shtick has grown thin. Ever thought about that? Burn.