R (strong bloody violence including grisly images, sexual content and strong language); 90 min.
Savage and stylish, Only God Forgives raises far more questions than it answers.
The re-teaming of writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling (the pairs last collaboration was the 2011 hipster hit Drive), this Bangkok-set tale of gruesome violence, a monstrous Oedipal complex and an existential dread worthy of Ingmar Bergman unspools in enigmatic fashion.
Refn gets maximum mileage out of Goslings marquee-ready mug, and his stars willingness to bloody said face, as well as a scabrous comic turn by Kristin Scott Thomas as a mother only Joan Crawford could love.
Gosling stars as Julian, a low-level drug dealer who also dabbles in Muay Thai boxing. His brother, Billy (Tom Burke), is brutally murdered one night in retaliation for Billys rape and murder of a 16-year-old prostitute. Incensed by the killing, the boys mother, Crystal (Scott Thomas), arrives in Bangkok to prod Julian into settling the score. In doing so, Julian crosses paths with the silent, lethal enforcer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).
Its a whisper-thin plot, and one that feels stretched out like taffy over the course of Forgives plodding 90 minutes. Despite luscious cinematography from Larry Smith and a hypnotic score from Cliff Martinez, Only God Forgives often feels like a hyper-violent fever dream Takashi Miike by way of David Lynch. Part of the frustration stems from Refns puddle-deep screenplay; theres a tendency to read into things, a desire for there to be more to the images onscreen than there appears to be.
It is unclear what Refn is trying to convey exactly, unless he was trying to make the mother of all Freudian arthouse dramas or trying to illustrate how cruel people can only really feel something if they are hurting someone else.
None of the characters is particularly loquacious, although Scott Thomas has a memorably profane monologue about halfway through and she seems to be having more fun than anyone. This uniform reticence only makes the film, which ends on an ambiguous note, more opaque.
At times difficult to watch yet lovely to behold, Refn has made a film that is easy to admire, tough to parse and almost impossible to enjoy.
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Preston Jones, dfw.com