An interesting realization occurs fairly early on in Only God Forgives that marks Nicolas Winding Refn’s film as more than merely the sum of its stylized parts. While one’s gut instinct may be to side with star Ryan Gosling’s Julian based on the actor’s familiarity and overall track record of playing heroes, the evidence set forth complicates a simple delineation of good and evil. Hiding from his murderous American past in neon-splashed Bangkok, where he deals drugs under the guise of managing a boxing club, Julian isn’t the nicest of guys. Though his handful of visions complicate matters, his propensity to snap on minor annoyances (be they real or imagined) with extreme violence suggests a dark soul that’s difficult to embrace.
Loyalties become more complicated when Julian’s brother Billy (Tom Burke) is murdered as payment for a heinous crime by his victim’s father. The man overseeing such eye-for-an-eye equilibrium is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a retired policeman with an appealing commitment to street justice. Amid Refn’s stunning shot compositions and scored with haunting techno horror by Cliff Martinez, Chang restores order and hones his skills with a samurai sword, introducing an antiquated simplicity of honor foreign to the modern atrocities to which he responds. Somewhere between these acts and oddly alluring scenes of his officer club karaoke numbers (which feel straight out of an Aki Kurismaki film), the lawman emerges as an unlikely hero, especially when one considers the alternatives.
That’s not to say Julian isn’t worthy of sympathy. Dragged into the cycle of revenge, his sense of family loyalty, though somewhat twisted, likewise makes him appealing in his pursuit of honor. Enriching this slow-burning investment is what seems like a lifetime of manipulation at the hands of his horrible mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), the fallout of which has turned him into an emotional and, considering his expatriate status, geographic prisoner unable to experience true freedom. Withdrawn to the point where his sparse performance in Refn’s Drive looks downright verbose by comparison, Gosling’s stoic face reveals deep repressed feelings, his occasional puppy dog eyes and pouty lips the only glimpse into the damaged heart of this intriguing underdog.
With these troubled characters muddying the moral landscape, the turning point of Only God Forgives occurs when Julian, under the toxic influence of his mother, brutally yells at his girlfriend Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) for suggesting that he act of his own accord. Along with the vileness of his brother and his repulsive mother, whose all out retaliation against Chang begins the moment she learns of his involvement, it’s therefore easy to root for the man who wants to stand in this family’s way.
The de facto hero, the quasi-immortal Chang strikes back through graphic but justifiably visceral means that live up to the film’s hard R rating. As he works his way to true bad seed Crystal, however, none other than Julian emerges as a full-fledged tragic accessory to the bloodshed. On a collision course with Chang, a mismatch on every imaginable level, Julian compensates for his earlier transgressions and becomes a hero in his own right once the extent of his hand-tied victim status becomes painfully evident. The resulting creation of opposing yet uniquely appealing “good guys” from such an elaborate conflict is a rare, wonderful bit of movie magic and makes Refn’s sadistic lullaby all the more impressive.
Rated R for strong bloody violence including grisly images, sexual content and language.
Only God Forgives is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.