Nicolas Winding Refn would like you to know that Only God Forgives, a quasi-martial arts crime thriller that has style to spare but barely a pulse, is some serious, genre-twisting, hard-ass shit. (He says so in an interview featured on the DVD, and bearing such a title one would hope the movie would be all that at the very least.) Limbs are separated from trunks, blood sprays majestically, great big bruisers are tortured (unconvincingly). But apart from that expression of the writer-director’s intent, which the glowing red-and-blue-lit cinematography, murky, rain-moistened setting and ominous sound design sell like the world’s gravest carnival barkers, there’s precious little evidence in the film of the vitality that must have drawn Refn to hard-boiled thrillers in the first place.
Instead, Only God Forgives plays like a very solemn boys’ game where the social and political context of the action has been boiled away, leaving only a crusty residue of attitude and a bunch of big kids acting out by rote scenarios that they barely seem interested in. One thing about the movie is marvelous, however, that being its sort-of astonishing quality of remaining a muddled act of storytelling even after everything about it, including the skeletal narrative upon which all the useless beauty of its design has been wasted, has been abstracted almost to the point of evaporation. It’s all just too silly to take with anything but a roll of the eyes. As it turns out, one overinflated directorial genius’s "serious" is this man’s "po-faced," all of the labored "genre-twisting" feeling much more like "genre-deadening" to these eyes and ears. (We can agree on the "shit" part, but perhaps we should change "hard-ass" to "lame-ass.")
It’s all revenge upon retaliation upon vengeance in Refn’s dark Thai underworld, where every shadow lurker looks like he has a secret that neither he nor the filmmaker will be sharing anytime soon. The psychotic brother of an American expatriate drug dealer, Julian (Ryan Gosling), rapes and murders a 16-year-old prostitute. A grim ex-cop turned grim, murderous crime lord (Vithaya Pansringarm) provides justice for the girl’s father by permitting the man to bludgeon and eviscerate his daughter’s killer, this before exacting a price for such an allowance by lopping off the father’s hands with the warrior’s blade he keeps tucked down the back of his khakis, apparently quite comfortably. (The "action" is interrupted occasionally when the crime lord takes time out to croon karaoke very sincerely to the corrupt policeman under his evil sway.) Julian tracks down the newly-stumped father but eventually lets him go, sensing, I suppose, that his anger should now be directed toward the nasty sword-wielder who usurped his own position of righteous wrath.
But Julian has his own troubles, in the personage of his bizarrely aggressive, sexually twisted mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), who has flown in from America for some reason—ostensibly it is to take care of the body of her first son, whose cock she explains without warning was much larger than Julian’s, though she never seems to actually do anything but glower, smoke, prod her still-living son to further vengeance, and call Julian’s lovely Thai hooker girlfriend nasty names. The inexorable slow-motion of what passes for the movie’s forward thrust, fighting as it does against the gravity of common sense, sputters, slows and becomes slower still, until everything seems like an elaborate tableau, a frozen, intellectually pompous View-Master perspective on action cinema.
Thomas at least livens up the proceedings a bit, even if her provocations are in their own way just as studied and predictable as all the dead-eyed stares surrounding her. She benefits from her character’s arrogance, the tilt of the woman’s ridiculously imperious eyebrows, and the advantage gained from the energy of flying so far over the top of an already fatally stylized movie where every other motivation is so neatly and perversely tamped down.
But what Gosling does can barely even be termed a performance-- it’s a joylessly smug, heavy-lidded pose, Gosling being the empty vessel, the willing repository of Refn’s every dour, abstracted notion of the antihero’s moral code and even of what constitutes "action." The fact that, outside of one puzzling outburst directed at his girlfriend, Gosling’s expression never changes for the entirety of the movie-- even when his countenance becomes a pasted landscape of cuts and bruises-- begins to almost seem like a perverse dare, a stare-down contest between collaborators and their audience, one which the audience cannot help but lose.
Movies like Only God Forgives, or Jim Jarmusch’s only marginally more tolerable The Limits of Control (a title which certainly suggests an element of self-awareness), traffic in drawing attention to tired tropes and implying meaning through the stretching of those tropes into useless shapes, all of which seem to congratulate audiences for seeing through the phony original models while simultaneously doling out criticism for lazy responses to the previous forms. But "meaning" is as sparse as the dialogue in Only God Forgives, and mining for it is the most listless of fun that can be derived from Refn’s relentless style, which carried me up to and past the boundaries of patience. The director sins against that which he fetishizes such that even the Almighty might hold back pardon.