In Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling team up for their second bloody go-round after finding success with their 2011 car chase noir Drive. The pair is a good one — a director with a hyper-stylized eye and a penchant for flourishes of quick, bloody violence that would make Sam Peckinpah nod in appreciation and a laconic actor, enigmatic and bristling, a brooding baby-faced brute capable of unspeakable savagery.
In Drive, the story was rooted in a true antihero who comes to the aid of the hapless family next door. It was a simple setup that played out in the darkest recesses of the black -and-white spectrum. Here though, there's not a true right or just corner, as those who mete out justice by disemboweling their enemies later prove to be morally ambiguous and, as the page turns, perhaps even the face of evil. Mind you, there's nothing wrong with moral ambiguity and gray areas — they can texture a film with piquant provocation and soul-searching exploration, but when the motivation and driving tenets become hollow and arbitrary, any connection the filmmaker attempts to forge with the audience gets lost in a sea of senseless violence.
And that's pretty much what happens here. Gosling's Julian and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) are expats running a boxing gym in Bangkok, which is really a front for a drug trafficking ring run by their brassy mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). Right out of the gate, Billy mentions he's "got a date with the devil," and runs off and rapes and brutally murders an underage sex worker. The local police chief, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows the father of the girl to bludgeon Billy to death in retaliation, and then cuts off the father's arm for allowing his daughter to work in the sex trade.
Julian is ultimately enlisted by his mother to exact revenge, and Only God Forgives settles into a blood feud between the transplanted Americans and Chang. The characters' moral ambiguity only grows, as Julian becomes conflicted when he learns of his brother's atrocity, plus there are hints of a strange and titillating sexual tension with mom.
Speaking of mom, Scott Thomas nearly steals every scene she's in. Some are fine moments of weary female assertion, others ride dangerously close to the Mommy Dearest camp, and then there are those moments that come out of left field — like when she meets Julian's girlfriend (a dancer in a strip club) and refers to her as a "cum dumpster."
Gosling as Julian here feels like a blanched-out version of his cool driver from Drive and Pansringarm's stoic Chang practically floats through the movie as an arcane ghost. Against the bigger, younger, and more physically imposing Billy or Julian, Chang remains calm, poised, and in command. His sangfroid is an eerie prelude to death, and his lethal capabilities include a samurai saber covertly holstered along the spine of his back. Whenever it comes out, someone bleeds in ample spurts.
Refn, who is Danish and made the devilishly taut prison film Bronson, has made films in L.A., the U.K., and Asia, and with timeframes that have spanned as far back as the Vikings (Valhalla Rising). At the heart of all of Refn's work there is always the embattled male, outside the bounds of the law and pressed up against a wall. His style, too, is signature: long telescopic shots of hallways bathed in red, dark rooms, and a seamless integration of soundtrack, action, and mood. There's no doubt these techniques make for an effective film. But the one thing that Refn should keep in mind is that no matter how richly choreographed his arterial spray and how deep his underground abyss, his story and its characters must have heart and soul.