A film like Only God Forgives tend to make terms like failure and success more difficult to quantify than one might think. Only God Forgives shows Refn’s preternatural stylistic instincts in full bloom, backs it up with a Cliff Martinez score that is the perfect tone of icy disquiet, all at the service of a bunch of appalling people doing and saying appalling things. If this is all you require of the film it is a success. If you expect to give a shit about the people within the frame or anything they say or do you will most likely be disappointed. As has been said before, this ain’t Drive.
In fact let’s take that a step further, “This Ain’t Drive” may as well have been the title and the tagline and seems to have been the single defining philosophy and creative impulse behind the film. The only way Only God Forgives makes any artistic sense at all is as a direct response to Drive. Despite having the same creative team I don’t think it goes too far to say that the film plays as a direct inversion of the earlier collaboration. While The Driver certainly had his issues, was arguably psychotic, he also had an undeniable glamour and more important, competency. While Gosling may wear the same stoic expression throughout Only God Forgives here it is not a mask of a man reigning his potential for violence and passion in, but an accurate reflection of a ruin. An emotionally retarded, mush mouthed little boy who literally fails at every single thing he attempts to accomplish throughout the film. (I happened to see the film after a screening of Evangelion 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone and Shinji Ikari had more agency as a character) He gets the snappy wardrobe but wears it as comfortably as a six year old in an Easter Suit. In short The Driver had a damaged nobility. In Only God Forgives there is only the damage.
While Drive tempered its occasional ugliness with great gouts of romanticism Only God Forgives features an entire cast that is irredeemably evil, a group of people who have without exception rotted all the way down to their cores. While Drive made vengeance cool Refn goes out of his way to make it a bloody sordid waste of time. Unlike Drive where no one outside of the main cast was affected there is so much collateral damage in Only God Forgives that it begins to border on the absurd. By the time the first act draws to its close the body count on innocent bystanders is in the dozen.
None of this is a bad scene in and of itself, and isolated scenes of Only God Forgives showcase Refn’s ability to create an almost Lynchian air of unease (particularly during a torture scene featuring a room full of witnesses who have all closed their eyes). But perhaps it also explains why despite its aesthetic pleasure I cannot help but feel cool towards Only God Forgives. Seldom have I seen a film so dependent upon its relationship with another.