If it’s possible to overact while barely blinking, Ryan Gosling achieves it in Only God Forgives, his second film, after the delirious Drive, with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn.
As Julian, a Bangkok drug dealer and fight-club operator, Gosling’s lids rarely lower. Yet that and every other affectation – his slow walk, his curt speech, his stoicism while watching a prostitute masturbate – is a minimalist way of calling attention to itself. Consider it ostentatious inertness.
Perhaps Gosling thought this was the only way to stand out in what is otherwise a gonzo indulgence of colored lights, thrumming music and “shock” violence. None of this is new to Refn, who also made the ferociously alive Bronson and the existentially epic Valhalla Rising. Drive, from its hot-pink titles to its casting of Christina Hendricks, felt like the apotheosis of Refn’s lurid style, the high point just before it tipped over into self parody. I’m afraid that’s where we’re at here.
Only God Forgives has a brutal beginning, in which Julian’s brother Billy (Tom Burke) goes on a bender of horrific sexual violence. That brings him to the attention of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), an older, vigilante cop. Disgusted by the sex trade that preys upon his country’s young women and the vile Westerners, like Julian and Billy, who perpetuate it, Chang enacts his own brand of gruesome retribution.
If a movie is aware of its exploitation and perhaps even conflicted about it, does that mean it’s no longer being exploitative?
Oh, we’re not done yet. Chang’s handling of the matter brings someone else to Bangkok: Billy and Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). Pitiless, racist and given to comparing the sizes of her sons’ penises (yes, there are incestuous undertones), she swoops into town and initiates a showdown between her unmitigated evil and Chang’s deranged justice. In this world, you see, only God forgives.
But where does that leave Julian? I suppose we’re supposed to care, but here (unlike in Drive) Gosling is little more than another element of the production design. Even after he’s de-prettified – during an indulgent and arbitrary fight match with Chang – the movie fetishizes Gosling’s swollen eye. I think it even gets its own, red spotlight.
You could almost say Gosling is being exploited, because Only God Forgives is – far more than the other Refn films I’ve mentioned – an exploitation picture. And here’s where things get tricky, because there’s also a level of knowingness at work. Only God Forgives could be read as an act of meta self-indictment, in which a visiting filmmaker acknowledges his exploitation of another culture by punishing the Western bloodsuckers who populate his story. Yet even if that’s the case, there’s something hypocritical to the entire project. If a movie is aware of its exploitation and perhaps even conflicted about it, does that mean it’s no longer being exploitative?
I’m not so sure, and Only God Forgives isn’t compelling enough for me to give it the benefit of the doubt.