The reteaming of writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling (the pair’s last collaboration was the 2011 hipster hit “Drive”), this Bangkok-set tale of gruesome violence, a monstrous Oedipal complex and an existential dread worthy of Ingmar Bergman unspools in enigmatic fashion.
Refn gets maximum mileage out of Gosling’s marquee-ready mug, and his star’s willingness to bloody said face, as well as a scabrous comic turn by Kristin Scott Thomas as a mother only Joan Crawford could love.
Gosling stars as Julian, a low-level drug dealer who also dabbles in Muay Thai boxing. His brother, Billy (Tom Burke), is brutally murdered one night in retaliation for Billy’s rape and murder of a 16-year-old prostitute. Incensed by the killing, the boys’ mother, Crystal (Scott Thomas), arrives in Bangkok to prod Julian into settling the score. In doing so, Julian crosses paths with the silent, lethal enforcer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).
It’s a whisper-thin plot that feels stretched over the course of the film’s plodding 90 minutes. Despite luscious cinematography from Larry Smith and a hypnotic score from Cliff Martinez, “Only God Forgives” often feels like a hyperviolent fever dream – Takashi Miike by way of David Lynch. Part of the frustration stems from Refn’s puddle-deep screenplay; there’s a tendency to read into things, a desire for there to be more to the images onscreen than what appears.
Unless Refn was trying to illustrate how cruel people can only really feel something if they’re hurting someone else or is making the mother of all Freudian art-house dramas, it’s unclear exactly what he’s trying to convey.
None of the characters is particularly loquacious – Scott Thomas has a memorably profane monologue about halfway through; she seems to be having more fun than anyone – and this uniform reticence only makes the film, which ends on an ambiguous note, more opaque.
At times difficult to watch yet lovely to behold, Refn has made a film easy to admire, tough to parse and almost impossible to enjoy.