A Drive to Bangkok, by David Bax
Two years ago, director Nicolas Winding Refn and actor Ryan Gosling brought us the highly acclaimed Drive, which I nonetheless found to be flat, often laughably self-serious and motivated by little else than a base urge to juxtapose insistently pretty imagery with nauseating violence. Now the duo has returned with Only God Forgives, which – despite playing to far less fanfare than its predecessor – actually represents a modest step forward.
Gosling plays Julian, an American criminal living in Bangkok, making a living running drugs behind front of owning a boxing gym. When Julian’s psychopathic brother, Billy (Tom Burke) is killed, the siblings’ mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) flies into town to bury her eldest son and to see that his murder is avenged, whether Julian approves or not.
At first glance, it seems that Only God Forgives is more of the same from the director of Drive. It has the same somber, neon beauty, the same lush and insistent synth score and the same ultraviolence. Oh, boy, is this movie violent. Its fetishistic depiction of disembowelments, impalements, scorched skin and severed limbs – among other things – is reminiscent of some of the more gonzo work of Takasha Miike, except there’s none of the glee. Whether that’s good or bad is, I assume, dependent on your personal tastes.
Upon deeper inspection, though, the film is remarkably – perhaps intentionally – different from the previous film. Nowhere is the distinction more evident than in Gosling’s character. In Drive, he was a quiet and sensitive loner who spent most of his time barely concealing a wide streak of psychopathic rage. In Only God Forgives, his posturing as a tough gangster is only a front for the hesitant, cowed and compassionate soul underneath.
It’s possible that I may be overpraising the film because my expectations were low. So let me be clear. There’s plenty of the same art-numbskull bullshit from Drive in Only God Forgives. The whole first act, really, is a waste. For instance, when Julian is making a big, sad pouty face while watching a prostitute masturbate, there is no more appropriate response than derisive laughter.
Once the film corrects and finds itself a reason to exist, the inspiration manifests in two different ways. First, it locates in Julian an actual character to explore. The death of his brother has given him the opportunity to finally examine who he is apart from his family and start acting in his own interest. And second, there’s a terrific and terrifying villain.
Vithaya Pansringarm is a detective named Chang who imposes his unbending will on every poor individual he encounters. So when Crytal’s revenge plans result in an attempt on Chang’s life, he dedicates himself without reservation to the destruction of her entire family and business. With a stirring calmness, he tears through the city’s criminal underground like Lucifer himself. This is certainly one of the greatest performances of the year so far.
Ultimately – and I will again compare the film here to Drive – Only God Forgives is unable to find the gas pedal in the final stretch and fails to resolve itself in a cohesive way. Still, the journey there was an unexpected and often compelling diversion.