The movie business is notorious for playing it safe even when a film advertises itself as risky. In today's fragmented, "multi-platformed" entertainment market, where overnight guerrilla sensations routinely aim to dethrone the heavyweights, we can sometimes kid ourselves that money isn't everything. But a commercial movie eventually has to attract paying customers in order to be considered successful, and that usually means a broadening-out or dumbing-down somewhere along the line. Self-proclaimed mavericks have to play the common-denominator game like everyone else. True rebels are rare.
But they do exist. Nicolas Winding Refn, the 42-year-old Danish transatlantic writer-director of Only God Forgives, seems determined to make his way as a purveyor of violent, bizarre scenarios that go to psychological extremes others shy away from. His Pusher trilogy earned him the undying respect of hard-action fans. Bronson gave actor Tom Hardy the menace-to-society role of a lifetime. With 2011's Drive, Refn returned to the United States — he spent his early youth in New York before moving back to his native Copenhagen — for a carefully calibrated neo-noir starring Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, and, as a cold-blooded wheel man, the taciturn Ryan Gosling. If there is a constant in Refn's outlaw tales, it's that sudden, illuminating burst of irrational character that his protagonists invariably display. It's their Achilles heel, their passport to the morgue, their ticket to the misfits' hall of fame.
Only God Forgives overflows with irrationality. In a seedy corner of contemporary Bangkok, tough-guy expat Julian (Gosling) promotes Muay Thai kickboxing matches as a front for his drug smuggling racket, with the help of his unhinged brother Billy (Tom Burke). One night Billy gets loaded and murders a teenage prostitute, whereupon Thai police inspector Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) enters the picture to the dismay of all concerned. If Julian is an ice-cold thug and Billy is a brutal fool, then Chang is the implacable garbage man whose mission in life is to clean up after unacceptable farang behavior. Meaning he has more ways to kill you than you know how to die. And yet, when he goes home to his wife and daughter he's the picture of a dedicated family man.
All this would make a perfectly reasonable movie bloodbath, but there's a wild card in the deck. The CEO of the cocaine operation is Julian and Billy's vengeful mother Crystal, a trashy Medusa with bleach-blond coif and skintight clothes (Kristin Scott Thomas, almost unrecognizable) who flies into town and upsets everyone's nerves. Cue hacked limbs and tit-for-tat tortures, plus a series of musical interludes/scene wipes that rival David Lynch for gorgeous grotesquery. The cinematography by Stanley Kubrick protégé and frequent Refn teammate Larry Smith (he shot Eyes Wide Shut) is superbly jarring, especially alongside the music of composer Cliff Martinez, a regular collaborator with Steven Soderbergh as well as Refn.
Some viewers, perhaps raised on zippy-zombie pics, have complained that Refn's Land of Smiles guignol moves too slowly. The director is certainly guilty of art-film pacing and laboriously wrought tableaux, but we're ready to believe that his goal is to create a displacement effect to match the characters' inner turmoil. True to established form, Gosling's Julian barely utters a word, even when he's hallucinating. In fact, aside from the motherly monologue in which Crystal acknowledges that she comes from a family of killers, you could fit this movie's dialogue into a bottle of Mekong Whiskey.
Julian, Crystal, and Chang all internalize their bugaboos, in much the same manner as Gaspar Noë's beautiful losers in Enter the Void, another lower-depths nightmare set in inscrutable Asia. Be that as it may, Refn deserves credit for avoiding the most obvious Thai movie clichés (elephants and go-go girls). It's a pleasure, in the wake of goofball flicks like The Hangover Part II, to see a film set in Thailand that depicts an ordinary family at home — never mind that Dad occasionally has to slice someone's eyeballs. Someone's got to keep the peace.
Scott Thomas has a field day as crazy Crystal, distractedly striking poses while contemplating murders. It must have been a relief for her to relax and play a vicious homicidal maniac. Only God Forgives is more stylized, more mystifying, far more violent and lurid than almost any "thriller" in release this year, a grisly shockfest in art drag. It's very likely a milestone in warped role-playing for actors Gosling, Scott Tomas, and Pansringarm, but we suspect that for filmmaker Refn it's just another day at the office. At any rate, it's one movie you'll not soon forget.