Drive star Ryan Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn reteam for the punishing Only God Forgives. Their first collaboration benefited from having a genre structure to which Refn overlayed his various stylistics tics. This time around, Refn isn’t tethered to anything. The plot might suggest your classic revenge yarn, but this film isn’t angling for petty satisfaction. It doesn’t want you to like it or to be its friend. Despite its sins and amidst its own protests to the contrary, I found plenty to enthuse over. All sinners and gluttons rejoice, everyone else, your patience will vary.
Gosling plays Julian, an American living in Bangkok. He runs a boxing joint as a front for more nefarious dealings. He’s as self-loathing as the movie and things don’t improve for him when his twisted brother winds up murdered. Big brother pretty much got what he deserved and Julian had an at best complicated relationship with him. Julian’s mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, is the real monkey wrench. She arrives and demands Julian seek retribution where none is owed. Due to their especially perverse relationship, Julian relents and finds himself on the bad side of a death-dealing sword-wielding super-cop played by Vithaya Pansringarm.
The psycho-sexual melodrama is just an excuse for Refn to indulge in his fetishes. Lucky for us then that these include sumptuous cinematography and exquisite production design. The neon pink and dried-blood brown palette beautifully captures the squalor. The film is built like a painting. A Goya perhaps. The movie doesn’t move so much as it swaps out the last image for the next one. Everyone is trapped inside, posing for posterity. Occasionally it becomes a blood-splashed Pollock since ultraviolence is another of Refn’s obsessions. Only God Forgives is absurdly graphic. Limbs, skulls, rib cages, and jugulars are all subject to marvelous sequences of brutality.
Gosling isn’t given a lot of text so he has to rely on his soulful eyes and his world champion brooding skills. Dude can brood like a motherfucker, which he just might be. The film doesn’t just come out and say it, but somebody did something to someone that nobody should do. Kristin Scott Thomas sizzles. She’s a lively presence in an otherwise stoic movie. Vithaya is an enigma. The performance mostly works because of the specifics of his character. This phantom has a bizarre penchant for lounge singing and an uncanny ability to produce a blade from thin air. He’d be a running gag if he weren’t so damn frightening.
There’s a heightened dream logic to the film buoyed by another excellent Cliff Martinez score. The religious metaphors preempt complex plotting. However, simplicity is still elusive as the messages are hazy and ethically questionable. There’s certainly something here for someone to examine and decipher more thoroughly, especially the allusions to On the Waterfront (Brothers, boxing, eyebrow scar, and being beat to a pulp). I liked knowing there’s something going on behind Refn’s madness even if I failed to figure it out myself. His style can work wonders when honed and guided but this version fascinates and entertains too.