Only God Forgives
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
When I was little, my mother warned me not to clench my face in a dour expression, lest it get stuck that way forever. Yet no one seems to have similarly warned Ryan Gosling, a hyper-handsome guy whose early roles betrayed a wellspring of versatility and shrewdness; Julian, this movie’s antihero, is but the latest in the sad litany of 40-yard-staring puppy dogs that have railroaded Gosling’s career. As a leading man his niche has extended as tall and wide as his own forehead, a plateau Refn exploits for 89 gruesomely dull minutes. If my focus on Gosling’s face seems uncouth, trust me: it’s Only God Forgives’ sole topic, which would be well-and-good if the same experiment hadn’t been attempted 21 months ago by both the star and director in Drive.
Whereas that picture had the brass to tender its audience at least some mirage of a love story—even if it relied more on the mise-en-scene of a thousand fragrance commercials—the new one makes no such concessions to consequence, drifting instead from one neon-splurging Bangkok set piece to another. Julian struggles to overcome his own illusory manhood when his brother Billy, the doer of the family, is killled, after surrendering for the murder and rape of a 16-year-old prostitute, by retired supercop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Their mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) flies in for damage control, and it’s revealed that both sons were grandfathered into her drug ring.
It’s not hard to tease Refn’s Ugly American subtext out of the deadpan malaise: Julian struggles to hold up his end of the lineage, culminating in the film’s single joke, when he asks Chang, “Wanna fight?” Gosling’s ensuing ass-kicking cements Julian’s impotence, giving sweet relief to the boyfriends of female moviegoers but verifying Refn’s anti-psychological take on male weakness as a total narrative non-starter. The two interesting characters—Chang and Julian’s mother—could have easily carried their own films, as the “villain” bookends the story in sweet, sad, drunken hotel-lounge karaoke. Naturally, Refn doesn’t offer Chang’s lyrics in the subtitles.
Opens July 19