For better or worse, director Nicholas Winding Refn can't be considered shocking anymore, can he? Oh, he's bold. He pushes the envelope. He has an incredibly distinct style -- dare I say as signature as anyone this side of Wes Anderson? But surprising? C'mon. Tonally, Winding Refn's latest film, Only God Forgives, picks up right where the excellent Drive left off. It even has Ryan Gosling in the lead role as a tough with either little command of the English language or little desire to use it (or both, perhaps). Gosling is not a stunt driver this time around, but instead a Bangkok gangster trying to cope -- somehow -- with the murder of his brother.
Gosling's brother Billy, played by Tom Burke, has it coming, and then some. In the film's opening scenes he goes straight from a Muay Thai ring that he and Gosling (aka Julian) run as a front for their drug smuggling operation to the streets of Thailand's capital city, where he promptly rapes and murders a young prostitute. This unspeakable brutality is matched by a policeman, Lt. Chang, who fancies himself judge, jury and executioner of the predators in his city.
Vithaya Pansringarm's Chang is not so much a character as force of nature; he's called the "Angel of Vengeance," and his retribution is often delivered with one fell swoop of his machete (though not in the case of Billy). Billy's untimely demise draws he and Julian's mother out of the woodwork, and the frigid, calculating, provocative Crystal, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, is the catalyst for the rest of the film.
She exhorts Julian to find Billy's killer, and when he's justifiably conflicted about doing so, she sends her own henchmen after him. This reckless chase draws Julian back in to the fold because, well, "She's [his] mother," after all, nevermind her wretchedness, the mental torment she inflicts on her son, her not-so-subtle incestual vibe.
Thomas' performance is electrifying. So, too, is Pansringram's. It's often unclear who is chasing who, but in a suspenseful (not incoherent) way. Much to my surprise, it is Gosling who drags this film back to Earth just a little bit. He's the weak support in an otherwise sturdy tripod. Unfathomable as it might seem, Gosling's Julian probably utters fewer words than The Driver in Drive. Whether it's his almost total reticence or the lack of a softening presence a la Michelle Williams in his previous collaboration with Winding Refn, almost all of the humanity is sucked right out of his character.
There's such vacancy to Julian that when he grotesquely defiles a body in the film's final few scenes, it almost seems as if Haley Joel Osment's android from A.I. is all grown up and selling drugs in Southeast Asia. This is a bit of a shame because the rest of the film is captivating. It's not just Thomas and Pansringarm, but also the city of Bangkok itself and Winding Refn's bizarre, fascinating fixations on hands and hallways and karaoke that give it some great moments.
Winding Refn is a near-master at this point of the post-Western. There are no cowboys or Indians or horses, but the Spaghetti Western influence is painfully obvious and well-crafted, whether it's mysterious, almost nameless characters, visceral scores or exotic, seemingly limitless locales. He just overdid it on his latest Man With
No Hardly a Name on Only God Forgives.
That's OK. There's still plenty here to appreciate, but, oh, what might have been had Julian been able to inspire a little more empathy.