Ryan Gosling doesn’t say much in his second collaboration with Drive filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn. He’s busy looking into the middle distance like a wounded child and occasionally erupting into violence. “Wanna fight?” is about the extent of his verbal skills. For all his cut-from-granite movements and dead-eyed staring, he may as well be Jean-Claude Van Damme. Of course, if played by the Muscles from Brussels, his character might have gotten out of a few of the scrapes that leave him looking like a pit bull’s chew toy by the end of this slow-motion surrealist horrorshow dressed up like an arthouse crime story.
Gosling’s Julian is one of two American drug-dealing brothers living in Bangkok. Julian also likes to run a muay thai boxing center, where he trains fighters and puts on matches. Sharp-witted viewers may safely intuit that the boxing skills Julian has learned here will be put to good use by film’s end. His brother Billy (Tom Burke) is a different sort than the stolid Julian. At the story’s beginning, we see Billy wandering the streets, looking for trouble. After demanding a pimp deliver him a fourteen-year-old girl, smashing him in the head when the girl isn’t delivered, he finds another prostitute and murders her. This is when a retired Bangkok cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm, lethally serene) enters the scene, and war begins.
Suffice it to say, Billy gets dead in an ugly fashion, like many other people who come across the quietly lethal Chang. Less retiree than crime boss, Chang spends most of his time not lavishing care on his young daughter — again, some viewers might puzzle out that she will be endangered before long — in carrying out acts of vengeance. His preferred method of dishing out justice is via a katana that’s particularly good at severing limbs, heads, whatever is required. One does wonder who cleans up the corpses he leaves scattered all over town. Is there another police unit dedicated to simply cleaning up his crimes? It’s hard not to see a little of the Western filmmaker’s laziness in this characterization of a terminally corrupted Asian city.
In illustrating the slow-motion gang war that lumbers to life between Chang’s cops and Julian’s crew, Refn focuses on various character’s dooms with the same close-up fascination with gut-churning violence that kept Drive so off-kilter. Gosling is again Refn’s man apart, a stolid pillar of inaction who seems two or three heartbeats away from just ceasing to exist. Only where his escape-car driver in that film had one very Steve McQueen-esque reason to exist, Julian is a more wounded soul, living off the pain of being raised by a woman like Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Thomas drops into Only God Forgives like a spray-tanned Valkyrie. Next to Chang and Julian, she’s a veritable fountain of dialogue, mostly excoriating Julian’s manhood in the most obscene way possibly for not properly avenging Billy’s death. When told why he was killed, her response is simple and forgiving in the manner of a goddess convinced she’s above such mortal concerns: “I’m sure he had his reasons.” While everyone else in the film seems to be trying to hide in the dark, her muscled raptor arms and harsh slashing lines of makeup are meant to stand out. Wrapped in dark Oedipal currents, Crystal surveys the city from her spaceship-like hotel penthouse, bringing order back to her criminal enterprise with a ruthlessness that would make Lady Macbeth wonder whether she was in the wrong racket.
After about an hour and a half of all this, it’s clear that Refn has both over- and underthought his story. It’s a film of violent fetishes, wanting to capture every splatter of blood and baleful stare. But the closest thing to a sex scene in the film is punctuated by a fantasized symbolic castration.
There are some pleasures to hang on to here, from Cliff Martinez’s oceanic, wall-of-sound synth score to the Kubrickian coldness that turns every scene into a slow-motion tableau of dread. But Refn’s half-hearted commitment to surrealism works against him, turning the film into a pseudo-mythological fugue state of sorts that can’t help but turn to camp. But it’s an unsatisfying style of camp, overladen with theological imagery and unable even to make much use of Thomas’s fierce dragon lady performance. In a better film, Crystal and Chang would join forces and rule Bangkok together. They might even learn to enjoy themselves.