Set in a sweaty Bangkok, within a heat-lamp palette of harsh reds and blacks, Only God Forgives starts out in hell, then pushes even further into demonic darkness, resolutely growing more stifling and sinister. It’s a far cry from the daydream buoyancy of Drive, which despite its copious violence was still a glimmering bauble, a goofy, gory riff on ideals of heroism filtered through a hodgepodge of fetish symbols and basic Freudian themes. This film is in many ways its inverse: Stiff, sweltering, and obstreperously simple, it’s also blessed with a pure visual beauty that clashes hard against the astounding ugliness on display in nearly every other aspect.
Booed at Cannes, this is an at times deeply silly movie that forcefully expands on the intense ponderousness that’s characterized the Danish director’s worst work. The violence is repellent and presented seemingly for its own sake, resulting in grueling, gruesome set pieces, sadistically couching its brutality within a high-style pictorialism that’s both hard to watch and difficult to look away from. Besotted with nocturnal-city tableaux, slow-motion movement, and wordless, electronic music-backed flourishes, Only God Forgives at times resembles an eerie but ridiculous procession of black velvet paintings, inflecting its viciousness with an insistent air of camp.
Yet the confidence with which Only God Forgives presents these unsavory ingredients is stunning, and many of the flaws here almost seem intentional, amping up the aggression via canvas-shredding self-sabotage. A filmmaker whose work has always displayed clear strains of self-loathing and masochistic angst, with isolated male characters beset by wicked father figures and collapsed family structures, Refn sums up this personal archetype via Julian (Ryan Gosling, his strong, silent-type shtick calcified to its purest form), the youngest son of a family whose dysfunction is positively gothic in tone. There’s a psychopathic brother, a murdered father, and a cartoonishly cruel mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) who, if not for her icy, castrating monstrousness (so in line with Refn’s history of shrewish, overbearing females), would feel pasted in from another, even stupider movie. Yet these inane characters are secondary to the actual concerns of the film, which in its horror-style accumulation of gory deaths seems to be focused on the gradual exclusion of everything but potent images: the sumptuous, sweaty ballet of bodies thudding against each other on a cement floor, yellow light filtered through traditional stone masonry, slow-motion bullets flying outside a crowded noodle joint.
Stripped to the most elemental of plots, Only God Forgives film presents almost no dialogue, and what does get spoken is usually idiotic and offensive. Examining the fraught relationship between this dysfunctional family unit and the satanic Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), it reduces the battle that ensues to its most diagrammatic function, with the ostensible revenge arc feeling mostly obligatory. A figure of pure malice wielding a razor-sharp blade, Chang identifies the film’s preference for explosions of pure movement over spoken exposition, conducting Ginsu-knife-infomercial-style demonstrations on human limbs when he’s not indulging in frightfully tranquil karaoke performances. His foil is Julian, whose equally laconic persona establishes this as a film conducted largely through glances, stares, and gestures, often conducted via unorthodox fusions of discrete spaces, a method that quietly implicates the viewer as the third party in this simmering blood feud. It’s a firm push toward a form of purely visual storytelling with which Refn has always toyed, one that’s handled here far more adeptly than in the dreary Valhalla Rising or the showboating Bronson.
It would therefore be reductive to label Only God Forgives as simply campy, even with its consciously stiff, stupid dialogue and trashy assortment of overbearing stylistic tics. It instead operates at a more complex level of subversion, and while Refn isn’t especially capable of conveying coherent ideas or themes, he’s increasingly proficient at presenting images that speak plenty loud on their own, even if their meanings are inscrutable or just plain hollow. If there’s a salient message floating around in all this unpleasantness, it’s one that runs counter to that of Tarantino’s torrid, guilt-free bloodletting, the running motif of lopped-off hands pointing toward an ultimate endpoint that emphasizes emasculation rather than catharsis, with violence that offers direct grotesqueness and none of the thrill. In Drive, Refn tweaked the details of the lone hero myth to make this legend seem both sweeter and more malevolent. Here, as if presenting a corrective to such adulation, he disassembles those same tropes through a process of glamorized deglamorization first experimented with in his Pusher trilogy, taking the basic form of the revenge flick and dipping it in tar, making for a movie that comes out sticky, nasty, and black.