By Alec Julian
This soporific Bangkok revenge drama follows up Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 “Drive,” also starring Ryan Gosling, also dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky (“The Holy Mountain”), also colored with mystical prodding – actually, more overtly so.
Unlike “Drive” or 2009’s “Bronson” (about becoming a celebrity in the slammer), there’s no single character for the audience to grab onto.
It’s not a matter of an antihero complex. “Bronson” immediately equips us with resources to hypothesize all the external factors which deformed a boy into an antisocial monster. Despite the driver’s tepid exterior, we sense that he’s stifling an inner glow that a single mother and her son tap into early, in “Drive.”
Here, Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a mafioso in Thailand. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of twinkle in Julian’s puppy dog eyes revealing a guilt ridden child, who’s unbendingly loyal to his tyrannous mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas).
Over dinner, the id-like Crystal tells Mai, who’s ostensibly Julian’s girlfriend, what do you think about Julian’s line of work? I’m not talking about the fag boxing club…He deals drugs: that’s how he can afford you to fuck him.
Credit Mr. Gosling for leveraging his gravitas to imbue a meek goon character with the charm and pathos to keep this film moving.
There’s a trio of main characters, the geometry of which structures the exciting second and third acts. After a cop called Chang (played placidly by Vithaya Pansringarm) offs Julian’s alpha dog brother for raping and killing an (underage) prostitute, Crystal orders Julian to avenge the fallen.
Chang is not the totemic merciless super villain; he is actually the only hero of the story, and as divorced from reality as “Only God” may be, Chang somehow keeps us grounded – his average comportment, his duty and respect for his family, his outward fairness. In many ways, he’s a shade of the hero of “Drive.”
However, it’s challenging to root for Chang when the pathetic Julian is beautiful and played by Ryan Gosling. Refn could have made a picture from Chang’s point of view, in which, without scenes of Julian grimacing, brooding, or fantasizing, we would get a hackneyed tableau – deranged mother, rabid dog older brother, cretin younger brother (Julian).
The stated weakness of the film is the employment of deus ex machina in the third act in the form of backstory revelations that complicate and clarify Julian. However, a film that aims to be dreamy, rather than rigidly constrained by time claims no contest vis-a-vis such contrivance.
Upon rewatching, it’s easier to expect fewer Guy Ritchie twists and turns, fewer Quentin Tarantino frenzied showdowns. And it’s easier to accept that we cannot swoon over Ryan Gosling as Julian.
As form matters more than content, some pretentious remarks about style. It’s obtuse to call this film stylish. “Style” is laden with lowbrow connotation. George Lucas’ PowerPoint transitions endow Star Wars with style. Michael Bay’s boom-boom-pow style is all too prevalent this season. “Only God Forgives” is stylish in the highbrow Tarkovsky sense, which is not to say that it’s objectively better than “Transformers.”
A critical absolution: In the interest of timeliness, this review is not comprehensive; the reviewer is not familiar with the Asian cinema which undoubtedly helped conceive this feature; ideally, a review would at least compare “Only God Forgives” with a few Quentin Tarantino projects (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill Vol. 1+2) which are soaked with plot points from Asian cinema.
Alec Julian is a Los Angeles based writer, who (fake) tweets.