Through Drive’s enticing stylistic veneer, Nicolas Winding Refn attempted to deconstruct the macho posturing of the action-hero archetype, and explore the inherent ugliness of the violence perpetrated by such figures. Ultimately, though, the film’s superficial visual pleasures proved too seductive even for the filmmaker, who allowed himself to indulge in the same hyper-masculine clichés that he attempted to subvert through his formal rigor. And yet, regardless of how obscured or inarticulate Drive’s ideas about the intertwined nature of violence and masculinity were, they were still present—something that can’t be said of Refn’s follow-up, Only God Forgives.
In the film, Refn allows his formal and stylistic flourishes to run wild, pushing them to nearly parodic levels. In lieu of seeing the Bangkok-set story’s Oedipal revenge plot through, the director is content to marinate it in a faux-Kubrickrian aesthetic and call it a day. The characters in the film suggest statues within his own personal gallery, moving them around nightmarish tableaux in perpetual slow-motion, subsumed by hellish red and electric-blue neon light, as well as by Cliff Martinez’s throbbing electronic score.
The less-than-wafer-thin narrative centers around Julian (Gosling), the near-mute owner of a boxing gym that also doubles as a front for his family’s drug-running business. After Julian’s older brother, Billy (Tom Burke), is killed in retribution for his brutal raping and murder of a 14-year-old prostitute, news of this violent conflict is relayed to their psychotic, drug-lord mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), who demands that Julian kill the men responsible—and, unfortunately for Julian, this places him on a collision course with the seemingly immortal Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who serves as Bangkok’s sole judge, jury, and executioner.
Much like its somnambulant protagonist, Only God Forgives moves at a crawl, and its increasingly vicious and brutally graphic instances of violence seem to explode from the ether. As the assassination attempts on Chang’s life, orchestrated by Julian’s mother, continue to fail, the thug’s wrath grows exponentially; in one scene, he sadistically separates the limbs from a man’s body using his razor-sharp blade (which, in an ongoing gag, he’s able to apparently pull out of thin air). Chang’s violence exudes a near-ludicrous level of gore that, for Refn, may have been intended as ironic, though it scans largely as exploitation.
There is one intriguing scene in the film wherein Julian and Chang finally face off inside the former’s gym, and as Martinez’s score ominously trembles and pulses, the indestructible action archetype of Drive is flipped on its head. Chang brutally beats Julian to a pulp, and his brooding stares and assumed fighting skills are revealed to be nothing more than the masquerading of an impotent boy desperately trying to reassert his neutered masculinity. Otherwise, though, this emotionally hollow film isn’t merely an instance of style over substance, but style as an excuse for an utter lack of substance.
Anchor Bay’s transfer does an excellent job of rendering Only God Forgives’s exquisite visuals. Black levels are appropriately deep, and the harsh reds and electric blues of Bangkok pop beautifully. And the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack crisply preserves the film’s dialogue, ambient sound, and Cliff Martinez’s powerfully stripped-down electronic score.
Along with providing a free download of two tracks from the film’s soundtrack, this Blu-ray release features numerous insightful extras. Two short interviews between director Nicolas Winding Refn see him talking with Mark Dinning and Bruno Icher about Thailand and genre films, respectively. Twelve concise features also take you behind the scenes of the film, including a look at the staging of the film’s alley-set gunfight. The two highlights, though, are a 10-minute look at the soundtrack with Martinez, and a feature commentary track by Refn, moderated by Damon Wise. Refn covers everything from Drive to Only God Forgives’s style and production. His observations aren’t only detailed and illuminating, but often times quite humorous, hop-scotching from anecdotes about shooting in Bangkok to an in-depth explanation of his editing process.
Anchor Bay’s excellent transfer and engaging extras are still not enough to elevate Only God Forgives above anything more than eye candy.