Fans and detractors of Nicolas Winding Refn's work will both find exactly what they're looking for in Only God Forgives. Those who were already in tune with his hyper stylish and bleakly violent sensibilities will find those near-silent bursts of accentuated violence in abundance. Anyone who feels as though his films are empty style with no commentary or nuance will likely find the third or fourth scene of brutality an exercise in excess. What you're unlikely to find is anyone who will fall in the middle of those extremes.
Curiously, that's where Only God Forgives seems to lie. At first its tendency towards brutality seems like a self-conscious attempt on Refn's part to shed some of the art house attendees who found Drive a breath of fresh air. The presence of Ryan Gosling in yet another performance of stoic manners is one indicator this is the case, and the soundtrack detours into synthesizers with just enough of an '80s tinge that the violence recalls similar moments in his breakthrough hit. But Only God Forgives is trafficking in the same realm as Valhalla Rising, an uncompromising look at the way different systems of morality brutally run into each other over the course of their respective evolutions.
Only God Forgives recalls Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant in this way. Julian (Gosling) runs the darker corners of Bangkok, willing to get his hands dirty if it means making sure that his drug running operation stays out of the limelight. His brother, Billy (Tom Burke), has tastes that run in extremes that push what little moral thread Julian still carries around with him. After Billy rapes and murders a 16-year old girl and receives and is killed, Julian is pushed into ethical quandaries he thought he'd abandoned a long time ago. His mother (Kirstin Scott Thomas) wants revenge but Julian hears of Billy's judgement at the hands of "The Angel of Death", a near mythical figure in the underground who deals out devastating punishments, and begins to fantasize about his own punishment at his hands.
This conflict between Julian and the Angel, Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), gives the film a fascinating edge. Both are operating within the same moral code but just different enough to put each other at a striking distance. Julian's struggles more because, despite the similarity of their methods, he is now constantly aware that he is not on the side of the angels. Refn makes his split literal as Julian wanders through hallways drenched in the red of hell while the contrasting blue of calm, or a perhaps a police uniform, surprises him with insight and reminds him he has a choice.
There are some nice touches that show how Julian and Lt. Chang distract themselves from the violent realities of their lives. Julian denies himself pleasure and gratification nightly in a bondage ritual that teaches him the control his brother lacked. Lt. Chang doles out his justice and then sings karaoke to empty coworkers and Vithaya, who did his own singing and fighting, makes weird beauty out of both. They play their roles dutifully to audiences that barely seem interested in their struggles and all it would take is one bad, or great, day to turn one into the other.
Their duality forms the meat of the film but there is still a lot of chaff that I didn't find as interesting. Gosling, as much as I love him, is in danger of becoming a caricature of his passive style. Refn continues to stretch out Gosling's silence in many scenes throughout Only God Forgives without, at times, the looming tension or conclusion that's being threatened by having Gosling stay still and silent. The balancing act between tense inaction and decisive movements is one that Refn has done perfectly in the past but some scenes here, like when Julian lashes out against his bondage companion, that would have been laughable if it weren't so bleak.
Refn's tendency to stretch scenes beyond their normal breaking point also culminates in a fight scene between Julian and the Angel that meanders too much for its own good. The scene builds up with a synth score for two minutes before the punches are thrown and then blows exchanged for the next three minutes. It's just too much of everything. Too much underlining the scene with the soundtrack, too much build-up to a fight we know is coming, too much brutality in a scene whose conclusion grows obvious and then continues beyond that. An earlier scene with Lt. Chang disrupting the order he maintains to seek justice is better with an ebb and flow of violence and consequence that better showcases Refn's talent.
Altogether Only God Forgives is still an interesting film even if the execution isn't as great as Refn's earlier films. Even though Gosling ended up in the film by chance it serves as a good companion piece to Drive. In the earlier film Refn is toying with an '80s action hero engineering a situation that lets him be the hero, here the protagonist views himself as a tortured '30s gangster longing for the pendulum to drop. The mileage varies, but Refn is still toying with the conventions of the genre enough to make Only God Forgives worth watching.