Julian (Ryan Gosling), the protagonist of Only God Forgives, runs a boxing club in Bangkok and drifts through the city like a ghost, relying on prostitutes and strippers for sexual release. The only constant presence in his life is his brother Billy (Tom Burke), who seems just as damaged and estranged. Then something happens that requires their domineering mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), to fly in from the United States and help clean up the mess. Lurking in the background is an unusually astute cop (Vithaya Pansringarm) who wields a sword instead of a gun. He wields it often.
In his follow-up to 2011’s Drive, writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn whittles down the plot and amps up the mood and atmosphere to hypnotic, engrossing effect. Filmed in sumptuous colors by cinematographer Larry Smith, a Kubrick disciple who also shot Eyes Wide Shut, the movie makes creative use of its foreign setting — the glittering elegance of upscale restaurants, the neon-lit seediness and grime of brothels and alleyways, the smooth surfaces and clean lines of a five-star hotel. Refn’s style and aesthetic become part of the narrative, which is simple enough to encapsulate in one sentence. But the story is given dimension and heft by the elliptical way in which it unfolds. Refn dares to give genre respect and gravity — this is, at heart, a straightforward tale of revenge — and he injects a strong Oedipal subtext into the film, hinting at the reasons why Julian is unable to resist his mother’s orders and silently suffers her brusque insults.
The seriousness with which Refn treats Only God Forgives has led to much critical ridicule. But mocking the improbable characters and bizarre juxtapositions is too literal and superficial a reading of this dreamy, entrancing movie. Refn knows exactly what he’s doing — he’s in on the joke — and he revels in the sensory pleasures of film as an art form (the score by Cliff Martinez, who also did Drive, is practically a character here). There are moments in Only God Forgives when you feel an inexplicable urge to laugh, and there are moments, too, when you recoil from the horrors on the screen. In one scene, Gosling drags a man down a hall, pulling him by his upper jaw. In another, the policeman uses sharpened chopsticks to torture a man in ways you wish you could unsee.
Taking a cue from their director, the actors take huge chances. Gosling internalizes his character’s emotional tumult, allowing us to feel the severely scarred psyche churning beneath his still exterior. In Drive, he played a loner who tried to avoid any emotional connection with the world. Here, he plays a man who yearns to form a bond but doesn’t know how. Thomas takes the opposite approach, playing Julian’s venomous mother with an operatic relish (the actress makes poetry out of her character’s astonishingly crude dialogue). As the see-all detective, Pansringarm exudes a samurai vibe — an indefatigable warrior willing to wade into the murkiest of waters. Only God Forgives has been marketed as a martial arts picture — the trailers include a shot of Gosling asking someone “Wanna fight?” — but the movie contains little in terms of traditional action, and Refn never uses it in a rousing or exciting manner, either. That would break the nightmarish spell this strange, beautiful film casts on the viewer. A mother’s love has never been this ruinous.