By Caryn James | James on Screens July 16, 2013 at 9:01AM
Take Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas out of the equation, and Only God Forgives is no more than a stylish midnight movie about murder, vengeance and drug-dealing in Bangkok. But there they are, exuding talent and legitimacy: Gosling stony-faced yet magnetic as Julian, who runs a boxing gym, and Scott Thomas breaking her own mold in a Donatella Versace platinum wig as his drug-boss mother, Crystal. They make this the latest in Nicolas Winding Refn's strenuous attempt, after the cult-y Valhalla Rising and the mainstream Drive, to blur the line between exploitation and something that approaches art. They almost help him get there.
If you're a fan of Refn's Drive, (and I am) with Gosling as its nearly silent hero, be prepared for a darker, campier film. Only God Forgives takes place in a shadowy world -- so literally full of shadows and bathed in blood-red light that you see right away this is not an exercise in subtlety. (That red-tinged photo above is exactly what much of the film looks like.) It's also a world littered with characters best described as sick puppies.
The first sicko is Julian's brother, Billy, who sets off the revenge plot by raping and murdering a young prostitute. Chang, a vigilante former cop who runs a gang of thugs and goes around delivering his own kind of justice, locks the dead girl's father in a room with her corpse and Billy; there are two corpses when the father leaves. Then Crystal arrives in Bangkok, and takes out hits on characters right and left, on a mission to get the people who killed her son.
If this sounds like an action film, take a breath, because Refn moves slowly. It must take 15 minutes before Gosling says a word, and his expression is totally affectless no matter what terrible news Julian gets. In fact, everyone is affectless except Crystal. I'm not going to be the one to count, but there are probably fewer facial movements per minute here than any film this side of Andy Warhol.
Until very near the end, Julian is the good guy by default.
All he does is work for his family's drug ring, so he's an innocent by
comparison. Gosling has tremendous range and one of the most interesting careers
around. He can dazzle in a mainstream romantic comedy like Crazy Stupid Love and carry a gritty drama like The Place Beyond the Pines. Even he can't
make up for Refn's underwritten screenplay, though. In the very late reveal about
Julian you don't see his character fall into place so much as feel the writer manipulating
Scott Thomas never breaks character as the foul-mouthed, racist, murder-ordering Mom -- smoking ultra-thin cigarettes, wearing orange nail polish and layers of false eyelashes. But you can almost feel her glee at being released from all her brilliant high-art roles.
She makes the film kind of a hoot, blood and all -- until you get to a disgusting torture-porn scene, which neither Gosling nor Scott Thomas has anything to do with. It's as if Refn can't help pushing himself not further toward art but lower toward crap.
Yet he is quite deliberate about the stylized visuals. The film is loaded with images of hands, some going into extremely private places, others chopped off. And there is the recurring image of Chang's vengeful sword, seen against a black backdrop before it swerves toward its targets.
Refn has said that the film poses existential questions, but Drive, with its hero trying to stay detached from moral judgments ("I just drive.") comes much closer to doing that. Here the title offers the only clue to that weighty theme, and like the rest of the film it isn't quite enough. Yet even when it's silly and gross, Only God Forgives is an intriguing journey into what stardom and style can and can't do. I'm not sorry I saw it -- even though it's more camp and cult than art.