There's nothing to like about Only God Forgives. There is, however, plenty to admire and swoon over. It's a bizarro-aesthete's pleasurescape: puddles of deep red art-gore, mute staring contests and suffocating pitch-black doom, all in the service of filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn's ongoing fascination with solitary men and their need to kill whatever comes near them.
From Pusher until this moment, his genre-film manner of wreaking beautifully composed havoc has snaked its way through the strutting Bronson, the trippy Valhalla Rising and the chill-bro electro-thrum of Drive. Every day is Murder Christmas with this guy.
Ryan Gosling stars as Julian, an isolated boxing gym proprietor/drug dealer in a nightmare version of Bangkok, whose pedophile/rapist brother Billy (Tom Burke) has just murdered a teenage prostitute. Enter Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a sociopath on the side of the law. He murders Billy (and a lot of other people, displaying particular skill at chopping off hands and gouging out eyeballs with little fruit knives) and then blows off steam singing mournful romantic ballads at the world's most catatonic karaoke cop bar. Next, enter Julian's bad-touch monster-mom Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a character whose camp appeal is tempered only by her repulsive cruelty and ghoulish interest in her dead son's penis size. When told of his crime against humanity, she says, "I'm sure he had his reasons." Julian's reaction to the brutality all around him is a silent shell-shocked stare. Still controlled by Crystal, Julian goes through the slightest of motions pursuing Chang but he doesn't really have the follow-through in him anymore.
A formal revenge film with the life squeezed out of it, Refn's approach this time around is to paralyze his protagonist. Julian is unlike Gosling's confident, likable bad-ass in Drive. Here he's an empty husk, framed like a still-life, backed up against walls and windows because there's no place farther away from the camera he can be placed in this hermetically sealed black-and-red box of a world. And if Refn's earlier films positioned violence as a power-tool, a forceful element of male charisma and a deep-seated personality trait/worldview, here it's an all-powerful slumlord, evicting more and more language and movement -- there's very little dialogue and torpor rules Julian's every step -- until all that's left as far as the eye can see is detached brutality and blank familial disconnection (a late moment involving Julian's final attempt to "reach" his horrifying mother is pathetic, heavy, sorrowful and laughably symbolic).
The takeaway from all this is a kind of attractive futility, a gorgeously lit bad dream of a movie where the attempt to kill the man who killed the man is really a sullen, ruined attempt to escape everything, with abstract human-like creatures living in a stylized slaughterhouse, feeling nothing whether they live or die. It boldly risks being read as silly and as empty as its characters and sometimes comes off as just that; but it's also a weirdly beautiful, unafraid, blood-bathed sleepwalk to the logical end of violent "cool."