It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's new film "Only God Forgives" comes across as that annoying friend we all had at college, who kept droning on about the beauty, grace, and honor of martial arts, all the while tending to his bloodied knuckles. In a recent interview with our own Simon Abrams, Refn said, "Emotionally, our artistic expression consists of sex or violence. It all boils down to those two pure emotions that we have." Not only is this take on human relations unoriginal, it's also sophomoric and blatantly untrue. In "Only God Forgives," the director goes even further to suggest there is elegance to brutality. Tell that to the guy who just had his hands lopped off.
The film was shot in Bangkok, which the cinematographer Larry Smith has lit up like the inside of a Dutch whorehouse. The Thai capital's look is meant to evoke sleaze and corruption, yet it comes across, like the film itself, as affected and artificial. The film resembles Joel Schumacher's "8mm," which is not really a good thing. Refn and Smith might have been going for authentic urban disquiet, but the result is middle-of-the-road trash-can of manufactured, polished, execration.
Ryan Gosling plays Julian, whose dispassionate countenance and reticent demeanour make the actor's character from "Drive" seem positively loquacious. With his older brother Billy (Tom Burke), Julian runs a Muay Thai boxing club, actually a front for their drug smuggling operation, a definite case of putting the cart before the horse, as what we see of their narcotics venture is pedestrian at best. If Julian is the introspective kind, Billy is the opposite. His quest to find an underage prostitute comes to a savage end when he murders her. When the local police arrive at the scene, they are led by Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a Thai-Chinese detective whose literal-minded dedication to "an eye for an eye" leads to Billy's execution at the hands of his victim's father, as well as the subsequent amputation of the father's arm.
Enter Kristin Scott-Thomas as Crystal, Julian and Billy's ferocious and manipulative mother, who comes to town mourning the death of her first-born, and coaxes Julian to exact vengeance. Julian and Chang, who is known on the streets as the Angel of Death (wink wink), embark on their separate quests, each seeking the other, as bodies and body parts pile up in their wake. All of this is supposed to say something profound about the cyclical nature of violence and retribution. Instead, it's just strident and obvious.