Only God Forgives
After pairing for the ultra-violent drama "Drive," director Nicholas Winding Refn and actor Ryan Gosling are back with another dark and twisted art-house thriller. But while "Drive" was a perfect slice of stylish artistry, "Only God Forgives," while another slick jaunt through a lurid world, doesn't have quite the substance that "Drive" did.
Taking place in Bangkok, "Only God Forgives" focuses on Julian (Gosling), who runs a boxing club from which he runs a drug trade, and the repercussions of his miscreant brother Tommy's life, which culminates in his murder. Kristin Scott Thomas (as you have never seen her before), as Julian and Tommy's Machiavellian mother, swoops in to retrieve her son's body and to avenge his death. Thus begins a game of one-upmanship that will not end until everyone's lives have essentially been destroyed.
When it starts, the film is almost Lynchian, a puzzle that may or may not ever make sense, but it becomes more linear as pieces of information are revealed and as we move through the underbelly of the city bathed in neon (always red neon). The story is Shakespearean in its themes of familial discord and shocking in its bursts of violence, which, as a combo, can be quite effective, though it never quite gels into as satisfying a ride as you hope for.
What gives the film the most juice is Scott Thomas's performance. She's a blond, tan, foul-mouthed, entitled, steamroller of a bitch from hell. Refn calls her character, Crystal, a cross between Lady Macbeth and Donatella Versace, which sums her up perfectly. She ignites the screen the second she appears, and you're unable to take your eyes off her. Both her portrayal and her character are so mercurial there's no telling what either of them are going to do or say. She's flat-out riveting, and this is the most electric, elastic role she's ever had.
Vithaya Pansringarm, virtually unknown in the States and practically a novice to acting in general, is equally as slippery as Chang, a volatile ex-cop who metes out his own meaning of justice. Looking like your favorite goofy uncle (if you're Thai) singing daffy Karaoke, he's a chilling crime lord who's unafraid to take on anyone or do anything in his quest for what he considers recompense.
Gosling is solid as always, an actual actor with the body of a porn star, and this is another interesting choice, especially as he's brave enough as an A-lister to get the crap kicked out of him (physically and emotionally), where many would only take roles in which they always triumph. He's a smart guy who underplays characters as opposed to chewing scenery.
With a moody, intense score by Cliff Martinez, who also did the fantastic score to "Drive," the atmospheric crime spree cum revenge drama is a Greek tragedy made to appeal to indie snobs and horror fans. And while it isn't necessarily better than the former collaboration between Winding Refn, Gosling, and Martinez, it is almost its equal. Which is to say, those who didn't like "Drive" likely won't like "Only God Forgives," because it is even less pandering to mainstream tastes. But if you're up for a pretty solid, unpredictable turn into the dark side, you're unlikely to do much better than this.