Review

Review: 'Only God Forgives' Is Way Too Aggressive About Its Simple Ideas

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Jul 18, 2013 | 12:54pm EDT

Credit: Radius/TWC

We all know someone who, try as he might, just cannot tell a decent story. Oftentimes, the anecdote in question is hardly worth relaying — a simplistic, meaningless memory about bumping into someone from high school on the way to work or finding a five dollar bill at the laundromat. Or, in the case of Only God Forgives, meandering around Thailand on the hunt for one's brother's killer. And while these anticlimatic accounts might be relatively painless if delivered in a quick, effortless manner, this friend opts instead to hone in on every detail, recalling with an excruciating vividness that insists upon your painstaking focus, forcing each and every conceivable facet down your throat with a boorish, exhausting aggression. And also, there's a whole lot of blood. 

For 90 minutes (that feel well over two hours), director Nicolas Winding Refn delivers some hybrid of a fluid story and a static idea: after his older brother (Tom Burke), a perverse delinquent, is taken down by a self-righteous police lieutenant (Vithaya Pansringarm), three-legged coyote Julian (Ryan Gosling) sets aside his life, ethics, and free will to heed his saber-toothed mother's (Kristin Scott Thomas) call to arms against the lawman. The story begins and ends there: the characters remain as they are upon introduction, with the only flow of action being Julian's lukewarm pursuit of Chang (Pansringarm) and vice versa.

Credit: Radius/TWC

Without much in operation above or below sea level in the realm of plot, Only God Forgives relies entirely on style, to a vicious fault. The dark aesthetics of Refn's weeping Bangkok and the hellfire melodies that carry forth the scenes are standalone dynamite, but make such an imposition as to deny you any emotional access to the movie or its characters. If you manage to break through, there are still obstacles — Thomas plays her demonic Lady Macbeth up to 11 and then some, the script never allowing for the flavors of mystery or brevity to strengthen her character. Instead, Thomas' Crystal takes every line, action, and motive a few steps too far, shirking any hint of "interesting" in the process.

In contrast, we have Gosling, who does next to nothing as the reactionary guppy swimming through Refn's sea of acid rain. Without much of a character to build, Gosling doesn't have too great an opportunity to let his actions do the talking in Only God Forgives, instead coming across as a moreover hollow audience surrogate, taking in this aesthetically mesmerizing world through Refn's weird lens.

There are enough times in Only God Forgives that color and character promise to keep the film from leveling out as the sort of painful non-story your loudmouthed friend is wont to anchor you down to agony with. Refn's visual style, while often graphically hard to watch and sometimes jarringly obvious, is a sight to behold. But there's never a true delivery, we never feel entirely vindicated by Julian's journey or our own immersion into this unpleasant universe. What is the story for, if not to cart a handful of bleak elements and images into our conscious to mull over? Is that enough to make a complete movie, or do the stylistic parts need to equate to something of substance?

Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter | Follow hollywood.com on Twitter @hollywood_com

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