"Only God Forgives" shares many things with Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn's last film, 2011's electrifying crime-drama-cum-love-story "Drive
," beginning with lead actor Ryan Gosling (2013's "The Place Beyond the Pines
") and extending from Refn's rich, synth-heavy score by composer Cliff Martinez (2013's "Spring Breakers
") clear down to his predilection for slow, fluid tracking shots and deep, neon-infused visuals. In addition, they both contain brutal waves of violence and a minimalistic approach to exposition, dialogue oftentimes used just enough to get by in weaving their respective stories. "Drive
" magnetically stood proud as its own auspiciously original, brilliantly directed entity, but its narrative telling was generally straightforward all the same. As divisive as it might have been for ADD-afflicted audiences bred on mindless action and "The Fast and the Furious
" sequels, it is a comparative beacon of commercial filmmaking when placed next to the mercilessly esoteric "Only God Forgives." Instilled with an Eastern flavor that exists beyond its Bangkok setting, this deliberately paced, savagely loaded tale of revenge and matriarchal power will baffle some and invigorate othersat least, once they've spun it around in their minds for a while. Count yours truly in the second camp.
American brothers Julian (Ryan Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke) are the owners of a martial arts gym specializing in Muay Thai, their kosher careers living abroad a front for a familial drug smuggling operation. When Billy is killed by the outraged father (Kovit Wattanakul) of the 16-year-old prostitute he's just brutally raped and murdered, their stern-faced Medusa of a mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), promptly arrives in Bangkok to transport her eldest son home. Before she goes, she makes it exceedingly clear that she expects Julian to do their bidding, and that means to execute every last person connected to Billy's death. When Julian tries to argue that Billy did some awful things himself and more or less had his grisly fate coming to him, Crystal won't hear of it. "I'm sure he had his reasons," she snaps back.
There comes a point in a person's development from child to adult when innocence is overtaken by cynicism and one's unblemished heart is tarnished by the ravages of life experience. In "Only God Forgives," it is the roughly 4-year-old daughter of corrupt Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who suggests conflict and discord can be solved by everyone simply being nice to each other. A naïve and simplistic point of view? Perhaps. But it would also prove to be the most wise solution for all involved as Billy's death prompts a war of unsparing vengeance that goes far beyond his grieving killer, ultimately leading back to Chang himself. Called the "Angel of Death," Chang is a depraved sociopath who rewrites the law to match his monstrous actions, then regularly heads down to the local karaoke bar to let off some steam. This contrastviolence begetting pop-music caterwauling, and vice versais eerily disturbing, an exceedingly telling and economical portrait of psychological unrest and impenetrablebut wholly believablehuman behavior.
In a motion picture that seems to wallow in fetishistic hedonism, daring weak-stomached viewers to gaze longingly at the screen without wincing, the usually entrancing Ryan Gosling proves to be the missing emotional link. Watching Gosling barely move a muscle in his face as he drifts through the vile, thematically loaded chaos on display, one must wonder what his and Winding Refn's intentions were with the character of Julian. He takes the verbal abuse of his mother because she's his mother, and berates fake fiancée Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), whom he's brought home to meet Crystal, when she suggests that he stand up for himself. Otherwise, he's a blank slate, the uncomfortably long pauses he lets pass within conversations awkward approaching surrealistic. In comparison or not, Kristin Scott Thomas (2012's "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
"), as the severe, platinum-blonde Crystal, sweeps onto the scene with such acidic force and salty vigor that she not only overshadows Gosling, but becomes one of the central talking points of the film. From her first scene, a sinfully funny run-in with a hotel clerk who informs her that her room isn't quite ready, Thomas steals her every scene, the particulars of her character and unapologetically pitiless intentions growing ever darker and more forebodingly Shakespearean.
Provocatively suggestive and worthy of multiple viewings, "Only God Forgives" nevertheless works best as a motion picture of atmosphere and style over substance, the screen's forbidden corridors and back alleys pulsating with cinematographer Larry Smith's glowing blue- and red-tinged color palette (in addition, portentous shots of a hallway elevator and booming organs on the soundtrack are unmistakably reminiscent of 1980's "The Shining
"). Lynchian in its violent, sexually viable weirdness, like 1986's "Blue Velvet
" transported to Thailand and given an extra splash of gore, the film enthralls and, on occasion, perplexes. Julian is something of an enigmatic onlooker, but there is no confusing his wish to go back and start his life all over. Maybe then he wouldn't be such a disappointment to his mother. Maybe then he'd be able to put a stop to his fast-severing genealogical lifeline. Or, maybe there's nothing that can be done to stop what's already in motion, the fate of him and his family meeting their match against a tyrant not to be messed with. Even amidst its most jagged of edges, "Only God Forgives" is a defiant and sinister piece of experimental, Grand Guignol
cinema, not easy to forget or to deny.