ONLY GOD FORGIVES (R) When Danish director/writer Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising, Drive) and actor Ryan Gosling first teamed up on the hyper-stylized '80s throwback crime movie Drive in 2011, there was a sort of strange magic unfurling. In Drive, Refn—a filmmaker uniquely able to convey a sense of formal cool precision and bloodthirsty enthusiasm at the same time—utilized the conventions of the crime genre in a manner we hadn't seen in a long time. He was a subversive at play, digging his way into the material with perverse delight, undermining the role of the strong-but-silent American hero and remaking him as a Bush/Cheney-era psychopath. What made the accomplishment so remarkable was that Refn had cast one of the most interesting American actors of his generation, Gosling, as his conduit for artistic malfeasance. Gosling resonates on screen with that rare ambisexuality that most all great movie stars convey (think Barbara Stanwyck or Marlon Brando), enticing to both male and female viewers, yet also equipped with a dangerous, violent screen presence that generates a disconcerting tension in his performances. Gosling may appear on screen as approachable wish-fulfillment, but underneath the simulacra of all-American goodness is one pure nasty piece of work.
Near the end of Refn's latest, Only God Forgives, Kristin Scott Thomas—playing a ruthless drug queenpin named Crystal and mother to main protagonist Julian (Gosling)—speaks honestly to Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a horrifyingly determined Thai cop, about her son. Like her offspring, Crystal is all subterfuge, but at this moment in the movie she bares it all to Chang, aware that savage truth is her only recompense. "He's a very dangerous boy," she says. It's a simple yet startling line. But she's right. Julian is bad news, yet he is propped up as the "hero" of this hypnotic, extremely violent cinematic revenge poem. In any other action movie of this kind, Julian would clearly be our demonstrable kick-ass hero, the stalwart tough guy with a heart of gold crusted underneath his bruised heart. He's anything but that, however. Beneath his good looks, tastefully elegant appearance and cool, Steve McQueen demeanor, Julian is a raging murderer. He's also a transgressive cripple, a modern-day Oedipus sickly attracted to his domineering, vampy mother. But Julian is in no way as fallen as his older brother, Billy (Tom Burke), the sibling who sparks the whole revenge drama that serves as the narrative structure of the movie.
In most revenge dramas, the act of blood honor is typically viewed as a redemptive force, like in Tarantino's movies since Kill Bill. But here, Refn portrays revenge as purely nihilistic. The nobility in bloodshed is cosmetic and hollow. It's infused with nothing but pain and leads only further into nightmare territory. When Julian finally gets his chance to go mano-o-mano with Chang in the Muay Thai ring for their dramatic showdown, the results are anything but reassuring. Chang, a rigidly authoritarian police officer and family man who would be the hero in countless other movies, is likewise unhinged. Yet he ultimately serves as a surrogate father figure to his opponents, exacting a vicious punishment for their moral weakness with every punch, kick and beat down. Chang is branded as the nominal "bad guy" of the picture, but in any other movie he'd be the glorified warrior/cop/authoritarian hero. That kind of subversion of the action story is really the core of Only God Forgives, and highlights how Refn gleefully messes with traditional ideas of the good and evil dichotomy.
In the end, the real star of Only God Forgives is Refn himself. This is a ruthlessly clever and stylized affair. It's not for everyone. Unlike Drive, which was an arty take on B-movie crime conventions but always adherent to a strong plot, Only God Forgives is brazenly dismissive of traditional commercial cinema. It's an aggressive, hallucinatory, poetic mood piece, but one that bites. Hard.