Let’s get right to the basics, shall we? At one point in “Only God Forgives,” the cartoonishly dark revenge saga starring Ryan Gosling, a man is terrorized by having sharp chopstick-like blades rammed through both arms, then both legs.
And the torture session is just beginning.
By this point, alas, you’ve so thoroughly given up any hope of caring about these miserable characters — the hunters, the hunted, or anyone in between — that you’re thinking less about what this poor guy is feeling, and more about what you’re feeling, sitting there in your seat.
As in, what time is it? As in, I’m thirsty. As in, I wonder what would feel worse, watching some more of this or actually being stabbed by sharp chopstick-like blades?
There’s a word for this feeling: boredom. And that’s the biggest surprise and disappointment of this film by Nicolas Winding Refn, though some may take issue with the stylized violence, which also involves limbs being sliced off (albeit very quickly), and a key scene involving a hand stuck into a bloody womb.
For all this, the film is not without artistic merit. Refn, whose “Drive,” also with Gosling, was well received, has created an evocative underworld in Bangkok — lonely, dark (most scenes are at night or indoors), and tinged in a seductive neon red. Nice use is made of Asian wallpaper patterns and long shots of a ceremonial sword. Refn’s fans will be happy with the look and texture.
But the movie’s real saving grace can be summed up in three words: Kristin Scott Thomas. You may know her as regal and graceful and British (or sometimes French), but here, she is American, garish, profane, and very, very nasty. It’s delicious to see this wonderful actress sink her teeth into something so off-type.
Thomas plays Crystal, mother of Julian (Gosling), who runs a boxing club that’s a front for drug-dealing. She arrives in Bangkok after her other son, Billy, has been murdered. She’s out for revenge.
But it’s not so simple. Billy was killed, Julian explains to Mom, because he’d raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl.
“I’m sure he had his reasons,” Crystal retorts.
The other main character is a shady policeman called Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Chang’s a man of few words — other than the syrupy karaoke songs he intermittently breaks into — but he exerts a priest-like control over the proceedings, exacting vengeance with a sword stored in a sheath running down his spine.
It’s Chang who tells the murdered girl’s father to kill Billy. Then, he chops off the father’s arm for having sold his daughter into prostitution. And yep, he’s also the guy who has fun with those chopstick-like blades.
Eventually, somehow, the cycle of revenge will reach Julian. It’s a shame that Gosling, a terrific actor, doesn’t get to do more here. Mostly we just look at him as he, in turns, looks somewhere else, silently and stoically. He’s nice to look at. But still.
As for the rest of the film, once you get past its slick veneer, you may find yourself looking at your watch, even though it clocks in at a concise 89 minutes.
Why? First, you’ll likely be fearing the next unsavory act. But also, you may just stop caring. How many times, for example, do we want to gaze at a corridor and wonder what’s down there? How long before we stop wondering?
At the end, you’ll be thinking of Thomas, whose exit is as splashy as her entrance. It’s worth waiting for. And hopefully she’s on her way to a meatier movie.
“Only God Forgives,” a Radius-TWC release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “strong bloody violence including grisly images, sexual content and language.” Running time: 89 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
MPAA rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.