**** (out of four)
When Quentin Tarantino delivers a violent cartoon like (the highly entertaining) “Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” no one bats an eye. “Sure, chop off as many limbs as you want,” viewers think. “We’re all just kidding around.”
Yet when a filmmaker depicts the ugliness of brutal violence, people reject it. Starring Ryan Gosling in another collaboration with director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive,” 2011’s best movie), “Only God Forgives” was widely loathed at the Cannes Film Festival. This strikes me as the knee-jerk reactions of tired festgoers unwilling or unable to separate a steady, purposeful study of violence’s mystery and emptiness from a dull, unpleasant excuse to watch arms chopped and throats slashed.
The viciousness in “Only God Forgives” is punishing, but it’s also almost always punishment. Gosling has few lines but considerable opportunity to depict loneliness in his face as Julian, an American who deals drugs in Bangkok—note: the setting makes local shenanigans seem a lot less fun/exotic than the underrated “The Hangover: Part II”—but doesn’t even register an expression while watching his favored prostitute (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) pleasure herself. He’s escaped from a terrible past into a terrible present, surrounded by merciless criminals and an awful older brother in Billy (Tom Burke), who begins a deadly sequence (which quickly includes his own gruesome end) after raping and killing a 16-year-old girl. Upon hearing what her late, preferred son did, Julian and Billy’s appalling mom (Kristin Scott Thomas, an inspired choice) says, “I’m sure he had his reasons.”
The line’s meant to be funny and shocking. Throughout “Only God Forgives,” Refn (who wrote the script) considers the concept of what it even means for people to get what they deserve. The filmmaker’s slow movement down ominous hallways and nightmare-like atmosphere recall “The Shining”; in many ways “Only God Forgives” is a horror story about the hideous things people say and do and the cyclical nature of revenge that would be comical if the actions weren’t so difficult to watch.
Those willing to give the film a chance should find Refn’s compositions consistently striking. He uses no more dialogue than he needs and again makes great use of a Cliff Martinez (“Drive,” “Spring Breakers”) score. The filmmaker offers no answers, only haunting questions: What drives people like this, and could any happy ending really be considered happy?
Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), an endlessly cruel cop who’s not without a sense of priority, demonstrates a love of family and singing as Refn questions our perception of someone who does what he does. He wants us to recognize the extremeness in “Only God Forgives” and feel like the innocent women Chang tells to close their eyes while he unleashes something nasty: They look away, but it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. And they still hear the screams.
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