Nicolas Winding Refn’s and Ryan Gosling’s previous collaboration, Drive, was a great critical success and has in the years since its release developed a vast cult following. The appeal of that movie hangs primarily on its mixing of genres, with Refn treating B-movie material with an A-movie focus and pushing style, atmosphere and emotion through fantastic, albeit measured, directing. Refn and Gosling’s second movie – Only God Forgives – attempts to do something similar to Drive and whilst it does have some interesting and beautiful elements, it certainly falls short of the mark and fails to make the same impression of Refn’s LA crime story. Only God Forgives has received extremely mixed reviews from critics and went down terribly at Cannes; in some ways, the movie feels like a rejection of Drive’s critical and commercial success, as if Refn has made a conscious effort to move past that movie’s modern icon status. It’s certainly an interesting and unusual movie, and one which is worth discussing.Only God Forgives focuses on expatriate brothers Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling) who deal drugs in Bangkok behind the façade of a boxing ring. Billy inexplicably decides to rape and murder a young prostitute one night, and is subsequently killed himself by the girl’s father, who is pushed into revenge by corrupt-yet-moral police officer Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) a man who believes himself to be God. The death brings Julian and Billy’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to town, and she begins hatching plans to take out the policeman who took out her son.The problems with Only God Forgives relate to its narrative and characters. Characters in Only God Forgives are across the board, unlikable, lack definition, and impossible to empathise with. We don’t know why Billy suddenly decides to rape and kill and girl. We’re told in the synopsis that Chang thinks of himself as God, but this doesn’t come across in the movie at all – he’s simply a corrupt cop, there’s no symbolic connection in the way that say, Anton Chigurh could be seen as fate or the devil. Gosling’s character is an extension of his Drive role in that there’s even less dialogue here, but really, the two characters have little in common. Drive’s Gosling meant well and was likeable with a Rebel Without a Cause edge which billowed into extreme violence (crucially, we root for him despite his psychosis). God‘s Gosling is difficult to understand, built on Oedipal mother issues and incest, and a passive lack of purpose within the narrative. Gosling is good in the role, getting by on his screen presence, but is really given very little to work with – the character just isn’t there and so without a main protagonist, the movie lacks a centre and muddles on without any real focus. It’s difficult to care about what’s going on here and as such the film drags.Drive’s plot was simple yes, but held together with heart by its central love story, and given an element of mystery in its murderous second act. The love story provided motivation for Gosling’s character, which separated him from a Travis Bickle style psychopath and gave the audience a means to relate to him. By the end of Drive, there’s a sense of emotional and narrative resonance and completion. Only God Forgives lacks any sense of narrative purpose and so falls flat. The movie feels like a throwback to grindhouse and pulp fiction and like Drive, attempts to take such B-material and raise it, but without characters or narrative the effect comes across as style over substance and becomes trying for the audience. Also unusual for Refn, he works in various flashbacks throughout the movie, but without character context these come across as disjointed and random. The plot also completely falls apart in the last fifteen minutes or so – there’s an uncomfortable and misjudged moment involving a dead woman which is symbolically very heavy handed, and there’s no real climax or resolution, just a frankly incomprehensible non-ending which was probably Refn’s intention, but still will leave a sour taste in audience’s mouths. The last few minutes are especially unsatisfying. There’s nothing to hold onto in the movie and it becomes a tiring and cold affair to sit though. The film is incredibly violent at times – though to be fair to Refn, his focus on violence seems to stem from a need to break casual viewers out of their cinematic apathy towards screen bloodshed; he is trying to shock, but he’s trying to make a statement too, and his violence is never glamorised. It works within the pulp context.For its faults in plot, there are some fantastic elements within Only God Forgives, which perhaps explains its polarising nature. Firstly, Kristin Scott Thomas is incredible – unlikable , but then she’s the real antagonist, working with a poisonous, vampy exported Americanism, coming across as Lady Macbeth crossed with a cocaine-addicted and washed up fashion designer. This is a trampy, wonderfully nasty character, selfish and manipulative, and Scott Thomas brings a great deal of energy to all her scenes, stealing focus from even Gosling – the moments with her on screen are the only times where the movie actually feels alive. It says a lot when she orders for other characters in restaurants before stealing attention for her own sob story and then talking about the size of her son’s dicks. There’s an unpleasant and violent edge to Crystal and it’s a shame she doesn’t get more screentime, as unlike Gosling’s character, Scott Thomas’ actually has momentum and has an effect on what little narrative there is in Only God Forgives.But where the movie truly excels is in cinematography and sound design. This is frankly a beautiful movie – Larry Smith’s visuals are gorgeous, and Refn presents a wonderfully bleak and sumptuous Bangkok. Aside from maybe one impressive city-wide shot, we’re confined to interiors – long, glowing corridors which the camera casually ambles down, neon everywhere, and the constant buzz of bright red lighting. Aside from a few short scenes, very little takes place during the day, and we’re given a real sense that we’re in the underbelly, the crime soaked nightmarish wonderland of murders and madmen. Refn’s direction is strong and in terms of pure visual aesthetic Only God Forgives has a lot to offer. The film also nicely ties together its pulp elements – the subtitled opening credits suggesting that this is an Eastern film dubbed are a nice touch, and the fight scenes are impressive and well put together. The music is also wonderful throughout. The soundtrack isn’t impressive as Drive’s was, as with the exception of a few karaoke numbers, there’s very little actual song here – but like Drive, the soundtrack is made up of pounding synthetic beats and electronic numbers which gives the movie a dreamlike quality. There are elements of Kubrick and Lynch in the sound production here, and all of it adds to movie’s eerie, off-centre atmosphere and strange tone. As a feast for the eyes and ears, Only God Forgives is brilliant.The problem is that visual spender can’t function without a plot to hold everything together – this is style over substance which is a shame, as this cast and director could have put a masterpiece together. The movie does look and sound amazing, which goes a long way to its credit. In some ways, this is Refn pushing away from the Western acclaim which he found with Drive, moving back into overly foreign, unusual methods of movie making. As such, despite the narrative problems, the movie should be praised for daring to do something bold and different, and an ambitious failure is always more successful than a mediocre film which does nothing new. This is in a way, a beautiful looking and well directed mess of a movie, which brings its score up to somewhere in the middle. It’s certainly interesting and will divide audiences, especially those expecting Drive 2, and goes against the grain of Gosling’s sex appeal image (an image which itself goes against the grain of his movie roles). Not the best, but there’s enough promise here to look forward to Refn’s next movie.