Only God Forgives
Opens Fri., July 19 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Rated R. 90 minutes.
Oh God, Ryan Gosling, what are you doing? Just because you had a small, critical hit with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, you don’t have to obey his next command. The Danish writer/director has some obsessive ideas about masculinity and mommy resentment to work through here. Their rendering is dreamy and hypnotic, set in the nighttime boxing clubs and karaoke bars of Bangkok, but more often they’re just plain silly.
Let’s start with the initial crime that triggers a bloody cascade of revenge. The older brother of Gosling’s drug dealer Julian, a creep played by English actor Tom Burke, commits a horrible crime. Then Billy just sits there, awaiting . . . what? What blood-covered culprit waits for the cops? And still later, when Julian is enlisted in his family’s vengeance scheme, which leaves at least a dozen dead, he again just waits . . . for what exactly? Unlike Gosling’s stoic, heroic wheelman in Drive, Refn makes Julian an entirely passive creature. His sex life consists of ropes and voyeurism. His one big attempt at boxing is a debacle. He stares a lot at his hands. And he mostly does whatever mommy tells him to do.
This brings us to Kristin Scott Thomas, playing the most berserk and perverse villainess we’ll see onscreen this year. With her broad vowels and garish makeup, Crystal is a Medea straight from the Mall of America. Told of Billy’s horrific crime, she replies, “Well, I’m sure he had his reasons.” Also in the family’s drug trade, she views violence as standard industry practice; it’s only weakness she can’t abide, and she takes every opportunity to belittle Julian, right down to his cock size. He’s fascinated by the idea of action, though he’s not truly a man of action. Impotent, in other words.
This brings us to the unassuming, middle-aged figure of Vithaya Pansringarm, whom you’ve never heard of. He plays Chang, apparently a cop, though he never wears a uniform. He doesn’t speak English, he carries a sword, and he sings in karaoke bars. Chang isn’t merely an implacable avatar of justice; he is, according to Refn’s very specific director’s note, God. The film’s Thai characters revere Chang and fear his judgment; it’s only the stupid, incredulous Americans who don’t know whom they’ve offended.
With its lush synthesizer drones and long-held pauses, Only God Forgives has a slow-burn, languorous intensity in search of a story. Instead we get a half-baked parable of sin and punishment. It’s like everyone’s breathing pure oxygen, but only the bursts of gore have a grotesque life. The ancients sacrificed virgins and scattered entrails to placate the gods or interpret their will. Refn makes lazy allusion to those rituals, but falls well short of their cathartic power.