You might hate “Only God Forgives,” and I can see why.
Or you might think it’s a perfect bloody milkshake with ingredients culled from the “Kill Bill” movies, the New French Extremism and “Twin Peaks,” among other influences.
This is a horrifically violent movie-movie of art-house pretensions and self-congratulatory skill, in which every frame, every musical note, every line reading is delivered in a way that demands our admiration, or at least our attention.
It’s as if director Nicolas Winding Refn is saying to us: Look at me. Look at how special I am. See how amazing the visuals, how depraved the dialogue, how stunning the bloodshed.
Refn’s follow-up effort to the similarly polarizing “Drive” (which I thought was flat-out great) is even more stylized and daring. “Drive” star Ryan Gosling (who is clearly interested in carving out a career with at least as many bold, indie-type roles as commercial, leading-man fare) strikes a Brando pose playing Julian, a smoldering, seemingly lethal American who navigates the seediest sides of Bangkok. Operating a shady fight hall with his brother, Julian is constantly gazing at his hands and balling them into fists, as if contemplating a fight of his own.
Julian seems to be nearly dead inside, he’s involved in a sordid, “9½ Weeks”-type relationship with a beautiful local girl and he’s elbow-deep in the Bangkok underworld — but he’s practically George Bailey compared to his brother Billy (Tom Burke), a psychopath with a death wish.
When Billy’s depravity catches up with him, we meet the real sickos in this story: the boys’ mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a viper in designer clothing; and a police detective named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who divides his time between doting on his young daughter, singing karaoke to his colleagues — and using his ever-handy Samurai sword and whatever other lethal objects might be handy to maim, bloody, torture and/or decapitate anyone he deems an enemy, a criminal or morally weak.
Chang believes in an eye for eye. Make that two eyes.
At times “Only God Forgives” feels like Kubrick circa “Eyes Wide Shut,” with the intrusive score and the moments of weird stillness. There’s more than a spattering of Tarantino (and the dozens of directors from whom Tarantino has cribbed). Often there’s a vintage David Lynch feel, especially in the stylized nightclub scenes. There’s even a little Sergio Leone in there.
Crystal is one of the most depraved mothers in cinematic history — a drug-dealing, racist, murderous, casually cruel woman who kept her boys very, very, very close to her. (Kristin Scott Thomas is so blonde, so chiseled, so tanned and so unrecognizable you might think you’re watching Ellen Barkin, or Cameron Diaz in weird makeup.) She’s so toxic, it’s a wonder people don’t start running the moment she enters a room.
It appears Crystal has spent most of her life as a predator, and when she arrives in Bangkok she believes it’ll take little time to exact revenge on anyone remotely connected with the fate of her oldest boy — but as the violence escalates and the body count piles up, Crystal comes to realize Chang is a whole other level of sociopathic, systematic street justice.
Whether he’s decapitating a cowering witness who has just spilled the beans, driving spikes into the arms and legs of a tough guy before taking away the man’s sight and hearing or cutting off a man’s hands because the man wasn’t a good father, Chan never breaks a sweat or registers emotion. This is what he does. This is who he is.
Gosling’s Julian is damaged goods; we realize just how severely bruised he is when his mother delivers a grotesque monologue to his girl about Julian’s shortcomings compared to his brother — and yet Julian explodes at the girl for daring to critique dear old mom. There’s not a ton of dialogue for this character and he does some nasty things, yet Gosling manages to convey the presence of the decent soul he might have become were it not for that mother of his, and the path she set him on.
Pansringarm is electric as the methodically lethal Chang, even though we get even less insight into his character. We don’t know how Chang got to a place where nearly every working day involves separating someone from a limb or their life, but he’s unwavering in his belief system. Self-doubt is for everybody else.
This is one of the most shocking and one of the best movies of the year.