David Lynch must be laughing. If he had created something like Only God Forgives, substituting his own quirky casting for the rather staid choices made by actual director Nicolas Winding Refn, he would have walked away from Cannes 2013 with yet another Palme d’Or, another notch in his already sizeable artistic belt, and the kind of critical appreciation that only comes when a proven auteur once again establishes his creative credentials. No one would be arguing over the amount of bloodshed. The nihilistic, almost inhuman tone of the narrative wouldn’t be debated, and the occasional lapses into dream logic and inappropriate (but still funny) humor would be offset by his always unique sensibilities.
Instead, it was the man behind Bronson, Valhalla Rising, and Drive who crafted this descent into a gory Bangkok Hell, and as a result, Only God Forgives has issues. Not many, mind you, no matter what the naysayers contend. This is a deliberate movie, a tone poem set inside a recognizable noir filled with neon backdrops, saturated colors, and endless moments of moody introspection. There is very little dialogue offered, most conversations only necessitated to offer exposition or explanation. Indeed, Refn spells out everything you need to know in careful suggestion, from a glance or a nod to an innocent hug held a bit too long, or a sigh where something even less significant would keep the secret.
The simple story revolves around two brothers – Julian (Ryan Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke) – living in Bangkok and dealing drugs. The former runs a boxing club as a front, while the latter loves to scour the local whorehouses for underage sex. One of his trysts turns deadly and Billy is made to pay by a corrupt police official (Vithaya Pansringarm) who meters out punishment with a sneer and a sword. The boys’ mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) arrives in Thailand to claim her son’s body and it is soon obvious that she wants revenge. When Julian appears ineffectual, she hires some outside heavies to do her dirty work. Naturally, her plans backfire and soon there is a standoff between our evil lawman and the beleaguered brother left behind.
That’s it. That’s all there is to Only God Forgives. Billy rapes and kills an adolescent girl, her father beats him to death with a board, the nefarious cop cuts off the grief stricken dad’s hand, and then when Crystal shows up, she has the injured man murdered. We soon learn of a lewd connection between this lady and her offspring, Julian tries to show his mother that he’s changed (he even has an “entertainer” girlfriend) and the official nicknamed The Angel of Death is targeted for termination. When this persistent policeman discovers the plot, he goes after the angry Americans and, as usual, blood flows. The ending offers up no redemption and even less resolution while we are stuck contemplating the final shots, and even then, Only God Forgive continues to hide its meaning.
We’ve seen things like this before – the legal actually more crooked than the criminal, the loner lost in the insularity of his own unspoken predicament, the domineering bitch queen matriarch who thinks she controls things, and luminous local color that’s like fluorescent ice cream inside an expressionist’s paint box. Refn is not aiming to make this material new. Instead, he’s hoping his spin will be different enough to turn the recognizable into something revelatory…and he almost does. You can tell that every shot was carefully planned out, that the backdrop and lighting scheme were designed to emphasize certain subtexts and themes that only filmmaker could fathom. There is a Kubrickian feel to the framing, Refn making sure that everything is just so before barreling on to the next bit of business.
Indeed, Only God Forgives often plays like the opening of Lost Highway as filtered through a sexless Eyes Wide Shut. Violence is the main focus here, not available Asian skin, and it’s refreshing that every character isn’t accompanied by some slag hanging off him like a human drape. Instead, Julian clearly wants to make a connection with a “dancer” named Mai (Ratha Phongam) though his prickly nature seems to countermand any real caring and The Angel of Death seems truly Hellbent on keeping the females in his sphere of influence pure and untouched. There’s a telling moment when the police break into a debutante like ball to ‘question’ a suspect. Before the torture begins, one of the officers admonishes the ladies to “close their eyes” as a way to avoid the horrors to come. The men are told otherwise.
Nor is this a movie about traditional brutality. Sure, Julian and his official nemesis duke it out in a rather uneven match (our American is lacking in the necessary skills) but for the most part, boxing is a MacGuffin here, a front for other, more devious business. Drugs also get little play. We see a deal go down early, and Crystal cons a hitman into helping her with the promise of “five kilos of blow,” but that’s all. Instead, we are supposed to become intoxicated with other aspects of this insular world. In fact, the traditional elements that draw us to this kind of genre material are all but missing. The killings are nasty and unforgiving. There is no joy or glorification in the carnage. Instead, Refn seems to take his title seriously. Not even he will let the audience off the hook by dumbing down the more disturbing aspects of his movie.
As for the acting, it’s easy to see who’s the real centerpiece here. While Gosling has got the non-blinking stare down pat, it’s his craven Cruella De Vil of a mother, Ms. Thomas, who steals the show. She’s blond and bimbo-ed out, toned like an aging diva who knows her time is up. She speaks like a sailor without any real compassion and her crocodile tears always end up giving her away. There is a hint that Crystal has been horribly inappropriate with her boys, in ways that remain elusive, and yet it’s clear that they care about her. Even Julian’s reason for being in Bangkok explains a lot about their link. In fact, the movie could use more of this. Without a strong central premise – outside of revenge – we struggle to stay focused.
Still, Only God Forgives is a hazy, harrowing, successful experiment in style. At only 90 brief minutes, it makes its point and then quickly departs the scene. If it has a main flaw (and there are several minor ones along the way), it’s that there’s really no big picture pronouncement here. Julian’s journey isn’t one fraught with greater meaning. In some ways, it’s a bad guy getting his just desserts from someone more evil. On the other hand, you cannot deny the movie it’s mesmerizing look and feel. A couple of past masters may complain, but for the most part, this is a cinematic compliment, not an outright rip-off. In the end, we’re engaged, if then left a bit empty.