Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Ratha Phongam, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke
Running Time: 90 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Only God Forgives is full of deplorable, immoral characters doing heinous things. Not like I'm judging or anything. And neither apparently is Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose Drive follow-up is a perplexing, blood-soaked trip down the rabbit hole that once again makes it abundantly clear he has no interest in courting mainstream approval or playing by the rules. And bless him for it, as he seems to have created his own cinematic language. But what's most remarkable about this is how he repeats himself without ever seeming like he's repeating himself. Drive was a tough act to follow so that this is just as polarizing and crazy as you'd think is a victory in itself. With a silent protagonist and an emphasis on hypnotic mood over story, there are enough similarities between the two that this could almost be considered its spiritual sequel. Except this isn't a "real hero" we're talking about, at times struggling to even operate on the fringes of being a "real human being." Likely to inspire as much frustration as admiration, it's a somewhat sickening and graphic viewing experience, but one that undoubtedly stirs in the mind long after it's final scene.
"Time to meet the devil" are the last words spoken to Bangkok boxing club owner and drug dealer Julian (Ryan Gosling) by his older brother Billy (Tom Burke), whose night on the town leads to him brutally raping and murdering a sixteen-year-old sold into prostitution by her father. He's caught by the karaoke loving, sword wielding Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) of the Thai police, who lets her father extract revenge on Billy, killing him. Billy's demise brings the arrival of Julian's mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to Bangkok, demanding he avenge her first born son's death. But that's not as easy as it sounds, since Chang's a dangerous man and Julian's heart and guilty conscience wrestle with the idea of extracting revenge. Controlled by a domineering mother and weighed down by the sins of his past, this silent, emotionally troubled loner must make a decision that could permanently alter the course of his violent life.
Slow, methodical and nearly impossible to pin down, the film visually calls to mind Lynch or Kubrick while telling a story that plays almost at times like a straight ahead revenge thriller, western or Hong Kong action movie you'd expect to get from Tarantino. Only there's a lot less talking and action, but for good reason. Refn's more interested in telling an allegorical tale visually with archetypes and symbols rather than characters and narrative. While it shares certain similarities with Drive, it's easy imagine anyone who loved that film despising this far more impenetrable effort since there's a lot less here emotionally to latch onto. Whereas that story focused on an ordinary loner who stepped up to become a reality-based superhero, Julian is actually sort of a wimp suffering from severe mommy issues. It's fitting that when his big showdown with Chang does occur it's significantly more one-sided than expected since he was never really wanted it to begin with. He's only interested in redemption and washing away his past sins and vanquishing Chang in the name of his deceased rapist brother would do little to accomplish that.
That Gosling can play this role so quietly but still manage to convey everything this abstract script requires speaks to his talent and continued dedication to making purely artistic choices that fly in the face of what's expected from him. In top form again, he turns in his best work since his 2011 hat trick of Drive, The Ides of March and Crazy, Stupid Love. But the movie really belongs to a bleached blonde Scott-Thomas, who as a cross between one of the those trashy reality TV housewives and a Mafia godmother, plays pretty much the most despicable character put on screen this year. From her very first appearance (in which she berates a hotel desk clerk) to an extremely uncomfortable dinner scene where she humiliates Julian in front of his prostitute girlfriend, Mai (Rhatha Phongam), she makes it easy to see how her sons turned out how they did. His reaction to her behavior is even scarier, while remaining completely in line with the moral black hole that is these characters' lives. The idea that this man can even be involved in any kind of committed relationship is one of the film's cruelest jokes, culminating in expected consequences. As good a case as any can be made that the least unethical character is the film's antagonist, Chang, who uses his sword to dish out his own brand of moral justice. You definitely won't be shedding any tears for his victims.
Only God Forgives is much more about how it looks and feels than anything it's about. In fact, it's tough describing exactly what it's about while removing those other two elements from the equation. Drenched in neons and red, it's unquestionably a visual achievement and an anecdote for those sick of getting the same thing over and over again from most mainstream movies. Also like Drive, you can picture a more accessible, commercial version of this being made that removes all the shocking violence, ambiguity and self-indulgence. It would undoubtedly be more easily digestible and maybe even play better, but it wouldn't be nearly as interesting or give you as much to contemplate. That multiple viewings are required to take it all in, despite the story being relatively simple, is a sure sign there's more bubbling under the surface than you'd get from most revenge flicks, which this isn't by a long shot. At least not in any conventional sense. Artistically, it's a big deal, even as you may find yourself turning away from the brutality unfolding on screen.