This review was originally published on May 22, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
There's an old expression in musical theater - you don't leave humming the lights.
No panoply of pyrotechnics is ever a real substitute for what you've come to see. On Broadway it can be showtunes, at the movies, usually, it's a story. Nicolas Winding Refn, the unpredictable director of "Drive," "Bronson" and "Valhalla Rising" has decided to double-down on design with his new one, "Only God Forgives." The result is for insiders only. The type of gearheads who thrive on lenses and know the mechanics of color timing - they'll go into sugar shock. Those looking to connect with characters or sink their teeth into a narrative will be gravely disappointed.
"Only God Forgives" is set in the Bangkok underworld, where Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling) run a Thai Boxing operation, a bar and, we eventually learn, traffic in drugs. Their world knows no regular GE lightbulbs - this is a purgatory of deep reds and occasional yellows, blocks of light through decorative wooden slats (always at eye level for maximum dramatic effect, naturally.)
It looks cool. Ryan Gosling is cool. He slinks around the bar and the gym looking world-weary, but still babyfaced. He barely speaks. One night his brother Billy announces it is "time to see the Devil" and goes out with intent to find a 14 year old prostitute. He finds someone (her age left ambiguous) and ends up killing her in a gruesome way. Police Chief Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) brings the girl's father to the scene, leaving him to bludgeon Billy to death.
Chang's next move is unpredictable. He takes the father (grieving, or at least pretending to be) and condemns him for selling his daughters into sexual slavery. He then chops off his arm with the sword he pulls out the back of his shirt a la Captain Caveman and his beard.
With Billy dead, enter Kristin Scott Thomas - the only interesting character in this film, even though her scenery chomping and coarse verbal grenades come busting in from a completely different movie. She's the real force behind the operation and she wants Chang dead. While it takes some time (and some dead Thomas henchmen) it eventually comes to Julian versus Chang in bloody confrontation.
At the height of his fame Clark Gable was called The King of Hollywood. Ryan Gosling, somehow, has become The King of GIFs. It's improper, perhaps even demeaning, for me to think about those wretched animated screencaptures you see on idiotic sites like Buzzfeed during a feature film, but when Refn shoves dozens of slo-mo closeups of Baby Goose in your face, let's see how long you can resist. Much like how Andy Samberg's impression of Mark Wahlberg talking to animals has rendered me incapable of taking Boston's most neighborly celeb seriously in non-comedic roles, I found myself unable to keep from giggling at every closely observed twitch on Gosling's face. Besides, it's not like there was much else going on in this film.
"Only God Forgives" is slow. I don't mean lots of slo-mo, I mean when Chang enters the room he basically floats like a ghost. Lines are delivered as if everyone is whacked-out on quaaludes, and this includes tough guys being tortured.
It's in line with the ridiculousness of the production design, I suppose. When every single shot of the movie is squared-off and ready to be your next desktop background pic, it's important to give people time to drink it all in.
There's no way to overstate the gorgeous look of this film, but the mannered dialogue and deliberateness of pace becomes less of an homage to Asian revenge films than a parody. Fetishists will love it from opening credits (in Thai) to the closing dedication to Alexander Jodorowsky. (Which, for what it's worth, I found unfair to the great master of surrealism, but I guess the two directors are pals.)
If one wants to root around for depth it is there, I suppose. Gosling, the Son, is a redeemer through his shred of dignity. But Chang, ruthless and all powerful, is perhaps on the side of right. But just as only God may forgive, only stoners who are blown away by gruesome violence and Cliff Martinez scores will have any interest in parsing this tale. The rest won't be quite so forgiving.