Craig's First Take: "Only God Forgives"

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Ten years ago in Bangkok Julian killed a cop and went on the run. Now he manages a Thai boxing club as a front for a drugs operation. Now he must avenge his brother's murder
3.5

Ryan Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn made a memorable thriller in “Drive” but the more I think about their new pairing “Only God Forgives”, the more I want to proclaim them to be the most interesting duo working in films right now.

Don’t go in expecting another thriller, it’s not much on that; it feels expiramental, dream-like, and loonily sadistic. It’s definitely a film for people who love to read into movies, pinpointing its influences, reveling in the stylistic choices, and being asked to fill in some blanks about the characters, as there is minimal dialogue and it’s not the kind of movie that shouts out big reveals.

The story is a gradual psychodrama set in Thailand. Julian (Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke) manage a boxing club there, which I believe is a front for a family drug running operation. Billy is seen being rough with a teenage whore that he soon kills. The father of the girl, goaded by police chief Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), ends up killing Billy which puts the onus of revenge on Julian.

Julian is a quiet sort, also interested in drugs and whores, but he’s also stoic and repressed, prone to violent outbursts hard to control. He even has the whores tie him down before they “perform” so as not to hurt them. When he finds out why his brother was killed, he allows the killer to go free, but this does not sit well with mom who is flying into Thailand to take over the business.

Crystal is a heartless bitch of a woman played outstandingly by Kristin Scott Thomas, the only one in the movie who really talks in sentences. This ice queen’s defense of Billy’s crime is priceless and a dinner sequence between her, Julian, and a girlfriend of Julian’s turns into a hilariously demeaning rant on why she always considered Billy to be a favorite over Julian. She has undeniably left emotional scars, leaving poor Julian to still yearn for her affections. So while he would rather just be alone, he reluctantly goes after Chang and the rest.

Gosling doesn’t say much, he blank-stares and allows the few actions and words to define the character for him. It won’t win any awards but it works for me and it makes sense that a character like this would be an emotional recluse, prone to not really wanting to shout out that his mother has destroyed any and all masculinity and he is now just an angry shell. Pansringarm is fantastic here tho, a sword-wielding arm of righteousness who seems to follow the Bible to a T and then blows off steam later singing Thai pop-songs at the Karaoke bar.

Visually this movie is incredible, a cinematographers dream of blue and red neons, seedy locales, and posh hotel rooms. It feels dirty all over and matches the sicko characters who take up most of this movie perfectly. Cliff Martinez’s electronic musical score is fantastic as well. There’s also incredibly brutal violence here-eyeballs are gouged out, people are cut in half, get their throats cut, are scalded- that will turn away some while establishing the story’s theme of ridiculously screwed up people and the righteous hands who smite them.

If there is one major problem here it’s the over-indulgence: scenes that run too long on characters just blank-staring, swinging their swords, and various other scenes supposed to look profound but instead look like nothing is happening. I’m also not really sure it all holds together but it doesn’t really have to.

“Only God Forgives” was supposedly booed as Cannes this year but interestingly enough, so was “Taxi Driver” when that came out. Now I’m not saying “Only” is as good, it’s far from, but it's uniquely outside of the mainstream and that alone is enough to have great hopes for Refn as a filmmaker in the future.