Bloodshed and Brooding in Bangkok
Ryan Gosling has quickly mastered the art of the long, pensive gaze. What’s maybe more impressive (or to some discouraging), is that his stationary staring mug can be seen in one light as seductive, mysterious, and transformative, and in another, sulky, insipid, and vapid. The former might be observed in 2011’s entrancing noir Drive while the latter is most prominently exhibited in Only God Forgives, the puzzling and morbid second pairing between Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn.
The film is low on story and high on everything else. There’s an underground fighting ring, omnipresent red and blue neon lighting, echoing footsteps, blood-soaked machetes, incestuous relationships, brutal torture, killing, and karaoke. They occur in no particular order, a maniacal mash-up that serves to create a potent, visceral atmosphere through a dark and disturbing lens. It seems to have become a staple in Refn’s repertoire, an exaggerated climate of ultra-violence in a richly, symmetrically framed canvas splattered with all shades of darkness , blood, and sweat. Here, any depth past that thickly layered artsy fog is lost within the streets of Bangkok, consuming narrative coherence in its more empty themes.
Gosling plays Julian working as a kickboxing instructor with his brothers as a front for a more lucrative underground drug business. They swap cold stares in the arena’s maze-like bowels laced with Julian’s unnerving graphic dreams of erotic amputation. His brother Billy (Tom Burke), particularly vile, rapes and kills a prostitute one night, quickly paying a similarly vulgar death moments later by a hitman, employed by the city’s infamous god-like ex-policeman. This man, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), expressionless of course, walks with a steady gate and even strides, a cold-faced killer who pursues only in his self-imposed standard of criminal justice. Sometimes it’s a slice to the leg, a slash to the throat, an incision to the more fragile parts of anatomy. His outlet for this extreme form of morality is an eerie stage to sing karaoke in front of his fellow law enforcement agents.
His cold-faced pursuits, when in motion, provide the most engaging and narrative-driven parts of this film. At 89 minutes, Only God Forgives feels twice as long, walking in quicksand, trapped in slow-motion, an exploitative method to showcase its pornographic violence not explicitly tied to its thematic goals. It worked in Drive, a film anchored by a love story, because you could feel sacrifice and loss sink in. An entrancing musical score from Cliff Martinez is a valuable factor for Refn again, something to fill the voids left by Gosling’s muted presence.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect that this short-worded characteristic is a product of his domineering, cigarette chewing mother, played by a gravitating Kristin Scott Thomas, named Crystal. Look into her ball and you’ll find her vain reflection of blonde hair, tanned skin, heavy eye shadow and curling fingernails. You’ll also see her jet-setting to Bankok after news of Billy’s death, lamenting her first son’s passing, criticizing Julian’s blank-faced cowardice. When she finds the reasons why Billy was killed, she mutters, “I’m sure he had his reasons,” the obtuse reply this maternal figure and devilish temptress has internalized.
Julian’s moping presence spells a severe castration anxiety, specifically during a dinner table scene between mother and son. Their Oedipal overtones spiral into an unlikely necrophilic lower abdomen intrusion, but by that point, you may be too jaded with Refn’s fetishistic gore to be satisfied with its ludicrously cathartic release.
Films like this, implicitly supplied with varying degrees of incomprehensibility, hope that ambiguity highlighted with cringing fear-laced sequences will find transcendence to their audience. The “Aha!” eludes this film. The only eureka moment is that you’ve suffered through a pretentious heaping of hooey.