Nicolas Winding Refn had been making movies in his native Denmark for a dozen years before “Bronson,” his razor-edged 2008 biopic of a notorious British criminal, earned him some notoriety in the English-speaking world. After this came 2011’s “Drive,” an ethereal, existential crime thriller that had a mostly American cast and was the first of Refn’s films to play in more than a handful of theaters. It had a nameless protagonist who didn’t talk much, and its intoxicating neo-noir mood was punctuated by shocking acts of violence. It was my pick for the best film of 2011.
If Refn’s follow-up to it is any indication, “Drive” is as close to “mainstream” as he’s going to get. Set in Bangkok with a mostly Thai-speaking cast (subtitled), “Only God Forgives” feels in some ways like a darker, more gruesome successor to “Drive,” but with even less dialogue, less nuance, and less widespread appeal. Those aren’t necessarily criticisms, though it’s fair to point out that several moments in “Only God Forgives” are exceedingly difficult to watch.
It stars Ryan Gosling again, with a name this time but even more taciturn than last time. He plays Julian, an American expatriate making a living in Bangkok’s underworld as a muay thai fight promoter and a midlevel distributor of illicit drugs. We gather that he was drawn into this world by his brother, Billy (Tom Burke), a raging psychopath who’s far better suited to it than Julian is. Billy is the sort of fellow who goes to a brothel requesting a 14-year-old and, being told there are none, asks the proprietor if maybe he has a daughter who could step in.
Billy’s appetites soon get the better of him, and his victim’s father deals swift, righteous vengeance in the form of bashing Billy to death. Fair’s fair, after all. But what ensues is an escalating war of revenge involving Julian; a malevolent police lieutenant, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm); and Julian and Billy’s drug-kingpin mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who arrives from the States to claim her favorite son’s body and reveals herself to be even more horrifying than the deceased was.
What a woman is Crystal. A bottle blonde with harsh features and caked-on makeup, she looks like an aging pin-up girl turned monstrous. She speaks lewdly, cruelly to Julian, whom she views as a disappointment and vastly inferior to his older brother. She matter-of-factly makes obscene, borderline incestuous statements to Julian and his quasi-girlfriend, Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), a prostitute. When Crystal is informed of what Billy did that led to his death — “He raped a murdered a 16-year-old girl” — her response is: “I’m sure he had his reasons.”
Crystal is well-matched with Lt. Chang, an unnervingly calm figure who seems to float in and out of scenes dispensing justice according to his exact standards. (That’s when he’s not singing Thai karaoke to an audience of entranced fellow police officers — one of the film’s several David Lynch-ian touches.) Julian, sympathetic to us despite his rough edges, is caught between them as Crystal demands he kill Billy’s killer, an assignment he balks at, not least because it will put him on Chang’s bad side.
The story could scarcely be simpler, having been boiled down to its essential ingredients of revenge, anger, and greed. Using slow pans and glacial tracking shots, Refn and cinematographer Larry Smith lead us carefully, unhurriedly into this nightmare world. The color scheme is dusky blues and lurid reds. Like “Drive,” it’s more about the tone than the story. But here, the Gothic family dynamics and other psychological components, as disturbing as they are, take a backseat to the methodically orchestrated carnage. This is a brutal yet strangely beautiful film, designed to inflict blunt-force trauma on the viewer while practically daring us not to laugh at the outrageous evil perpetrated by its villains. The experience of watching the movie is compelling, almost mesmerizing — but the artistic merits only barely compensate for how arduous it is.
B- (1 hr., 30 min.; )