( photo courtesy )
Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling team up for their second bloody go round after finding success and lauds for their 2011 car chase noir “Drive.” The teaming of the pair is a good one, a director with a hyper-stylized eye and a penchant for flourishes of quick bloody violence that would make Sam Peckinpah nod in appreciation; and a laconic actor, enigmatic and bristling, a brooding baby-faced brute if you will, capable of unspeakable savagery.

In “Drive,” the story was rooted in a true anti-hero, who comes to the aid of the hapless family next door. A simple set-up that plyed the darkest recesses of the black and white spectrum. Here though, there’s no true right and just corner, as those who seemingly mete out justice by disemboweling others later prove to be morally ambiguous and as the page turns, perhaps even the face of evil.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with moral ambiguity and grey areas, they can texture a film with piquant provocation and soul searching exploration; but when the motivational catalysts and driving tenets become hollow and arbitrary, the visceral connection that the filmmaker desires to forge with the audience gets lost on a sea of senseless violence.

That’s pretty much what happens here. Gosling’s Julian and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) are expats running a boxing gym in Bangkok, one that’s really a front for a drug trafficking ring run by their brassy mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). Right out of the gate, and playing the antithesis to the film’s title, Billy mentions he’s “got a date with the Devil,” runs off and rapes and brutally murders an underage sex worker. The local police chief, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) in retaliation allows the father of the girl to bludgeon Billy to death, and then cuts off the father’s arm for allowing his daughter to work in the sex trade.

So goes the film; and as Julian is ultimately enlisted by his mother to exact revenge, “Only God Forgives” settles into a blood feud between the transplanted Americans and Chang. Julian too becomes conflicted when he learns of his brother’s atrocity and there is the strange and titillating overture of sexual tension with Mom. Scott Thomas nearly steals every scene she’s in. Some are fine moments of weary female assertion, others skate dangerously close to “Mommy Dearest” camp. Then comes those moments that pop out of left field , such as when she meets Julian’s girlfriend (a dancer in a strip club) and refers to her as a “cum dumpster.”

It doesn’t matter the context, whenever Scott Thomas is onscreen, the film is alive.

Gosling as Julian here feels like a blanched-out version of his cool driver from “Drive.” Pansringarm’s stoic Chang practically floats through the movie — an arcane ghost. Sized up against the bigger, younger and more physically imposing Billy or Julian, Chang remains calm, poised and in command. His sangfroid is an eerie prelude to death and his lethal capabilities include a samurai saber covertly holstered along the spine of his back. When it comes out, someone bleeds in ample spurts.

Refn — who is Danish and made the devilishly taut prison film “Bronson” (that brought him and Thomas Hardy to a world audience’s attention in 2008) — has made films in LA, the UK and Asia and with timeframes that have spanned as far back as the Vikings (“Valhalla Rising”). At the heart of all of Refn’s work is always the embattled male, outside the bounds of the law and pressed up against a wall. His style too — long telescopic shots of red bathed hallways and dark rooms with jagged slashes of light to expose the emotion on the protagonist’s face, as well as his seamless integration of soundtrack, action and mood — has become signature. Still, the one thing that Refn should keep in mind is that no matter how broadly he trots the globe or how richly choreographed his arterial spray is in some underworld abyss, a story and its characters must have heart and soul.

—- Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies


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