Controversial as this film already is (the critics hate it, those who have watched it either hate or love it), it is a solid stretch of cinematic art by writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn. He is an artist who challenges audiences and takes enormous risks: his 1996 film, the extremely violent and uncompromising PUSHER became a cult phenomenon and won Refn instant international critical acclaim. That was followed by BLEEDER and the now cult classic DRIVE. Each of these films is highly stylized and focuses on introverted reactions to outward situations. ONLY GOD FORGIVES pushes those traits even further: completely set in Thailand it weighs in on Asian symbolism, spiritualism and response to revenge or own hand rights. It is very dark, both in the cinematography of Larry Smith and in the ever-present veneer of killing and death and mutilation. The entire film is a study in color manipulation, slow movement (as in Noh theater), minimal dialog, and even more minimal character development. And yet somehow Refn makes all of this work to his advantage to hold the audience, as though imprisoned, to examine the extents of evil.
The setting is Bangkok. Ten years ago Julian (Ryan Gosling) killed a man and went on the run. Now he manages a Thai boxing club as a front for a drugs operation. Respected in the criminal underworld, deep inside, he feels empty. When Julian's brother Billy (Tom Burke) murders an underage prostitute, the police call on retired cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) - the Angel of Vengeance whose other obsession is Karaoke singing. Chang allows the father to kill his daughter's murderer, then 'restores order' by chopping off the man's right hand. Julian's mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) - the foul-mouthed nasty head of a powerful criminal organization - arrives in Bangkok to collect her favorite first son's body. She charges Julian to find his killers and 'raise hell'. Despite being beaten severely in a fight with Chang, Julian's inability to react to anything - even to the physical relationship with a strange girl Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) - leads to mayhem that in many ways does not even seem to affect him.
The casting is strange: obviously Ryan Gosling was hired for the role of Julian because of his works with Reyn in DRIVE. He is called upon to do very little and as a result we are not able to appreciate his motivation or his presence in the story. Kristin Scott Thomas is a brilliant actress but here she is merely a source of filthy accusations and Kabuki-like poses. The star of the film is Vithaya Pansringarm, and even though we loathe him and his malicious manner he alone gives us an idea of why he is doing what he is doing, framing it all with obnoxious Karaoke singing in a garish nightclub. Everything about the film is slow and dark and yet for some obscure reason it works. Grady Harp, July 13