If a boy's best friend truly is his mother, this guy is seriously screwed. In Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn's laboriously paced follow-up to Drive, Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a drug-dealer based in Bangkok, seemingly hiding out from his American tiger mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). When his brother Billy is brutally murdered, Crystal comes to Thailand to pick up the body. Oh, and to avenge his death. Julian had previously shown mercy to the guilty party, knowing he was merely doing the dirty work of police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), heavy-handedly referred to in the press materials as the Angel of Vengeance. Crystal has some harsh words for Julian regarding his actions. Doesn't he know the title of this movie?
A criticism I once read of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof applies here, in that Refn only seems to have two buttons on his remote control: pause, and fast forward. When we're not recoiling at the sporadic sequences of gut-churning violence, we're watching people stare into the middle distance, presumably so we, the audience, can fully appreciate the neon-tinged locations Refn has sourced and had superbly decorated. Gosling, who I actually quite like here, can nonetheless do this kind of brooding role in his sleep, and I suspect he may have spent some of the movie actually in the land of nod. Julian, in his spare time, simply sits in a chair and waits; perhaps he's read the script and knows he doesn't have to do or say anything for about ten more pages. I much preferred Chang's pastime. After a night of bloody avenging, he sates himself with a round of karaoke. Now, there might just be an interesting film that features Pansringarm more prominently.
Alas, this is not that film! It's a much more self-serious and grim affair than Refn's best efforts, such as Pusher, Bronson, and Drive. Scott Thomas gets to deliver some outrageously vulgar and impotence-inducing insults to her son, but she's wandered in from some Saturday Night Live sketch spoofing The Real Housewives of Upper Sukhumvit, and it's jarring. As she's the only character speaking any dialogue, it's hard to tell if the crowd was laughing at her because she's funny, or if it was a temporary endorphin rush because finally someone had broken through the arduous, mind-numbing silence.
I'm hesitant to write off Only God Forgives completely. There's an interesting subtext to Gosling's character, who, despite his violent manner, turbulent temper, and fractured relationship with his mom, seems desperate to return to the womb (at one point, literally so). Ultimately, that's meeting this thing more than half way. Refn always knows where to put the camera, and Only God Forgives is technically impressive, bringing the nightmarish Bangkok underworld to life in dread-inducing fashion (with an assist from composer Cliff Martinez). The rare action scenes are compelling and confronting. Yet, as significant to Refn's previous successes the technical achievements are, they alone do not make a movie. You need something to hang your hat on, more tangible than light and sound and that vague feeling of cool.