Famously divisive at its Cannes press screening, being simultaneously booed by some critics while receiving a standing ovation from others, Nicolas Winding Refn & Ryan Gosling’s follow-up collaboration to “Drive” is an exercise in artistic pretension so abstruse and obfuscatory that it suffocates under the weight of its own pomposity. From the moment the film begins (after the nearly endless parade of production logos), you are made painfully aware that you are not watching a film or a movie, you are watching cinema.
Stagey to the point of paralysis, I suspect it would be possible to make a shot for shot remake of at least three-quarters of this film using still photographs and a standard automatic slide show programme. In those parts of the film which actually involve movement, the characters perambulate with deliberate, unnaturally paced, awkward self-awareness. When they’re not walking oddly, they stare at each other, or the walls, or nothing. The whole film is shot with a sleazy dream-like aesthetic and the anaemic narrative is punctuated by bizarre in-world karaoke performances by the Chief of Police, sung in Thai and subtitled for the viewer.
Eschewing the no doubt too orthodox opportunity of using some of the film to showcase the stunning scenery and vibrancy of Thailand, Refn chooses instead to saturate nearly every frame with moody lighting and shadows. The colour red hasn’t been used this gratuitously and unsubtly since Meg Ryan’s career-ending erotic misstep “In The Cut”.
The wafer-thin story concerns an escalating story of revenge following the brutal rape and murder of a young prostitute by the elder of a pair of drug dealing American brothers, played by Tom Burke and Ryan Gosling. When the local Chief of Police, played with automaton-like detachment by Vithaya Pansringarm dispenses his own brand of sadistic justice, the wheels are set in motion for a stilted, glacially paced, passionless war of attrition between the local authorities and the matriarch of the drug-dealing family, played by Kristin Scott Thomas (almost unrecognisable and looking like a drag queen Famke Janssen tribute act).
The gratuitous violence which this film has cultivated a reputation for is just another of its fake-outs. Much of the more gruesome events take place off-screen or are cut away from just at the grisly moment. What gore and violence there is on screen is poorly executed, the makeup and effects cheap and obvious. Morally bankrupt, this is an empty film, devoid of meaning, interest or provocation. Every single character in this film is utterly repellent and there isn’t a single shred of redemption to be found for anyone or anything, least of all the film itself.
Even God couldn’t forgive this.