Incest, eyeball-gouging, interior decorating: If Only God Forgives is any indication, writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn is a man of many interests. He’s also put Kristin Scott Thomas in a blond wig and an assortment of cougar-mom outfits, which is either a plus or a minus, depending on how you look at it. The movie, in which Ryan Gosling plays an American drug smuggler living the low life in Bangkok, is many things—unhinged yet restrained, arty yet cheesy—but it’s never boring. And if it’s a disappointment after Refn’s last movie, the viscerally elegant Drive, it at least bobs along on a grim, bloody current of silliness. You may not think you’re up for seeing a rib cage split open like a rack of lamb, but when it’s this well art-directed, what the hell? Refn is so drunk on style that we can practically smell the fumes.
It’s clear from the start that it would be dumb to take Only God Forgives too seriously. Refn opens with a kickboxing match that looks not quite legit, and introduces two brothers who are somehow involved in this low-down, sweaty universe: We can see that Billy (Tom Burke) is bad news right away—he wears his sneer like an anti-merit badge. But Gosling’s Julian—in addition to his sweet, classy name—has principles. You can tell just by looking at him. He’s earnest like a sack of hay, but with pecs.
It’s not long before we find out just how bad Billy is. An evil deed he commits kicks off a chain of events involving a sensitive cop (Vithaya Pansringarm) who loves to sing sentimental karaoke songs when he’s not lopping people’s arms off with the mighty warrior’s sword he has strapped to his back. Billy, of course, must die for his sins, and when he does, enraged mama bird Crystal (Scott Thomas) flies in from God knows where, ordering Julian to put things right by avenging his brother’s death.
Did I mention that she greets him with a not exactly momlike below-the-belt hug? But it’s shot from a really, really artful angle. And anyway, it’s Billy she really has the hots for, and he’s dead. Julian is clearly second banana: Refn gives Crystal lots of sass-mouth dialogue, including a compare-and-contrast of her sons’ privates. It’s all part of a little show she puts on to shock Julian’s sweet, pretty girlfriend, Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam)—but then, she’s a hooker, anyway.
Tawdry enough for you? Refn keeps laying it on, though he doesn’t seem to take much pleasure in his story’s seaminess—he’s too worried, it seems, about how it all looks.
The violence should be intense, but it’s quiet and still, almost tableau-like. The grisliest acts—with the exception of that eyeball-gouging—happen off-camera. It’s as if Refn himself is looking away with a discreet cough. He wants to show us stuff we’ve never seen before, but without really showing us, because that would be tacky.
Accompanied by a solemn, droning score, the picture glides forward in episodic passages that play out like pantomime—each scene is so carefully choreographed and photographed that the characters sometimes seem like cut-out shapes taped to Popsicle sticks, bobbing across the screen according to Refn’s whim. But what a whim! Refn lavishes his closest attention on his characters’ surroundings: There are some groovy shots of Gosling brooding in front of a stretch of tacky-beautiful foiled wallpaper, and a shootout that takes place in a house whose leaf-green walls look as if they’ve been painted with Sherwin-Williams and then painstakingly distressed. (The cinematographer is Larry Smith, who also shot Refn’s Bronson and Fear X.)
Even Gosling’s face looks art-directed. His left eyebrow is graced with a slash of a scar, a forlorn little place where the hair just won’t grow anymore. Was it the result of a knife fight? Or a drunken shaving incident? That’s just one of Julian’s, and Refn’s, many secrets.
Only God Forgives is the kind of movie you could take your grandmother to see, provided she’s Ma Barker. But really, it’s too ridiculous to be horrifying. Even Julian’s final act of vengeance against Tiger Mom, which should be luridly poetic, is just a numbingly obvious punch line. The actors do as they’re told, standing in the right place at the right time, delivering even the most inane, tongue-twisting lines as if they’d dutifully rehearsed them, which they probably did. Refn may be taking himself too seriously or not taking anything seriously enough—it’s hard to tell. But Only God Forgives, so brazen in its double-scorpion-bowl vision, is at least good for a giggle or two. Its sins are many, but after a while, it’s not even worth keeping count.