In "Only God Forgives," people move slowly through the frame, holding on a beat for extended lengths of time. These are often accompanied by the chimes of a xylophone, followed by a full orchestra, like a symphony building to its logical crescendo. That is, until the music stops and people rejoin the real world, which, in this case, consists of a brutally violent landscape where words like "criminal" and "police" feel like prudish barriers to understanding. There are only, the movie suggests, primal instinct, familial ties and an individual's own view of justice.
3 stars = Good
Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm.
R for strong bloody violence including grisly images, sexual content and language.
The film is directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, who made the 2011 neo-noir crime drama "Drive," also starring Ryan Gosling as a getaway driver in Los Angeles. For the setting, Mr. Refn has traded the dirty streets of L.A. for the expensive hotels and dimly lit brothels of Bangkok, though both locations are treated as lawless lands, modern-day Wild Wests.
Mr. Gosling plays Julian, a man of ambiguous background who has exiled himself from America and is firmly entrenched in Bangkok's seedy underworld. Like his unnamed driver in "Drive," who holds a day job as a mechanic, Julian is a drug dealer moonlighting as the owner of a Muay Thai boxing gym -- a suitable occupation for someone who prefers stoic silences to reasoning with words.
When Julian's brother and partner, Billy (Tom Burke), is killed by police after murdering a 16-year-old prostitute, his mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), head of an international crime organization, arrives to collect the body of her self-professed favorite son. She wants blood and wants her surviving son to deliver it for her. But she's up against Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a mysterious retired police officer on a personal crusade to cleanse Bangkok of the drugs and brothels.
The story is simple -- crime family seeks revenge; man seeks to take family down; son questions his family loyalty -- but these people are not. And, thankfully, no heavy analyses are offered. Rather, Mr. Refn seems to have a thing for characters who do much more than they say. Dialogue is used mainly as a kind of self-aware joke, a bit of humor inserted into this very dark world. After scenes in which nobody speaks, characters might physically lash out at each other or exchange few words, explaining precisely what is going on.
"Why do you let her treat you like that?" asks Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), a prostitute posing as Julian's girlfriend, when she sees the harsh treatment Julian receives from his mother. "Because," he replies. "She's my mother." It doesn't smack of profound insight. It's just how he feels, what he thinks.
No further explanation is given. The film most intrigues in the silences when, for example, Mr. Gosling's Julian sits in a club lit by red light, watching exotic dancers, his face expressionless. In dreamlike sequences, he moves close to the dancers, reaching out an arm to touch them. The scene then cuts back to Mr. Gosling, sitting cross-legged in his usual spot on a couch, watching the dancers. With his ability to communicate a wide range of emotions simultaneously, he makes it clear, as if there was no question about it, that you can be a violent man and a tender child at the same time.
Mr. Refn, however, uses his star sparingly, perhaps with the knowledge that the forlorn quality that runs through Mr. Gosling's repertoire has become well known to audiences. Fortunately, there are the supporting presences of Ms. Thomas and Mr. Pansringarm. When her hilarious, albeit sickening, manipulative diva comes face to face with his dark angel character, the scene is dealt with restraint, allowing audiences to fill in the gaps about who is in the right.
While gruesome images abound and the setting can feel a tad too repeated -- comparisons to "Drive" are near impossible to avoid -- the actors are the real reason to watch. Mr. Pansringarm slices people open and then sings in front of a small crowd in a nightclub. Ms. Thomas, similar to her son, watches men perform in a muscle show. Regardless of whether these scenes hold greater significance, sometimes it's just fun, and unsettling, to see violent people struggle to enjoy simple pleasures. It makes them eerily familiar.
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Jacob Axelrad: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1634. On Twitter: @jakeaxelrad. First Published July 19, 2013 4:00 AM