Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow up to “Drive,” “Only God Forgives” is a grotty, nasty, stylish revenge flick set in Bangkok, Thailand. Refn once again reunites with “Drive’s” leading man, Ryan Gosling who plays Julian, a drug dealer fronting out of a boxing gym with his older brother Billy. Julian’s the strong, silent type (catatonic in places), Billy’s the seething psychopath who rapes and slaughters a sixteen year old prostitute and is then himself murdered on the orders of Lt. Chang, a Bangkok policeman.
What is remarkable about “Only God Forgives” is not Refn’s refusal to hurry his deliberate and ponderous narrative; it is the brutal dismantlement of Gosling’s detached outsider shtick, so carefully cultivated through his recent roles in “Drive,” “The Ides of March” and “The Place Beyond The Pines.” Gosling as Julian floats around the luxurious, neon womb of his gym’s living space like an autopilot in stasis. His retribution is clumsy and botched, half-hearted when he realises just what a lowlife piece of shit his brother really is.
Unlike “Drive” Julian doesn’t have any discernible skills to fall back on when the going gets tough. There is no six-shooter self-reliance, no John Wayne sass or Clint Eastwood sardonicism. Julian is a Westerner hollowed out by a lifetime of voyeuristic pursuits; too much TV, too much internet porn, too many drugs. He cannot react to Chang’s eventual onslaught not only because he doesn’t have the moral platform from which to do so, but because he simply doesn’t know how.
Thus Refn casts Julian down into his own high-gloss, red and black hell above the gym, searching for meaning or at the very least, a way out. At times this is a Lynchian Black Lodge, the impenetrable darkness of doorways doing their best to imitate “Lost Highway.” At others Julian seems to have been transported through a Kubrickian Stargate, the doorways now the stygian black of “2001’s” Monolith. At every turn all Julian can do is watch his neon future creep slowly closer.
The fundamental, terrifying truth for the Westerners in “Only God Forgives” is that, no matter how duplicitous they may be, how often they defer to their Oriental lackeys to wipe Chang out, they simply can’t win. Unlike “Black Rain” or “The Yakuza” they are on the wrong side. The moment they decided treat Bangkok as their XXX rated Disneyland their fate was sealed. For all his Aryan good looks, Julian hasn’t even got a girlfriend, but a hooker who loathes him with the contempt he deserves. Flayed of his sexual prowess how on earth do we expect a non-entity like Julian to defeat an exterminating angel like Chang?
At least Crystal, Julian’s mafia-matriarch tries to take the fight to Chang. Kristen Scott-Thomas’ Crystal is a knowing Jocasta reunited with her lesser Oedipus. She mercilessly berates the unflinching Julian for not being Billy, comparing their cock sizes and capacity for violence. Scott-Thomas looks like Madonna impersonating Marlene Dietrich; she says Julian murdered his own father; perhaps he killed Guy Ritchie for trying to tame her? Whoever she is Crystal is the vampire that sucked Julian dry of emotion.
And what of Chang himself? He’s the real star of course. Gosling’s Julian is just a supporting character with star billing. Vithaya Pansringarm gives his Chang a sinister, quirky little walk; his arms remain pinned at his sides like a Thai John Cleese, which never quite descends into Pythonesque absurdity. He’s Beat Takeshi without the squint administering vertical “Un Chein Andalou” eye slitting. He is Thailand’s revenge but he isn’t the God of the title as much as he assumes that role. Julian is God because only he can forgive Chang’s annihilation of his debauched family and he does so with outstretched arms.