If you think the fact that Only God Forgives brings writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling together again will make it anywhere near as good as Drive, think again. There’s a good idea in there somewhere, but it got lost in the execution. Maybe because there are several executions juxtaposed with scenes of cops singing karaoke.
Gosling portrays “Julian” who lives in Thailand now and runs a boxing club. On the surface. Beneath that surface he and his older brother “Billy” (Tom Burke) are running a big smuggling operation which is actually the enterprise of their mother “Crystal” (Kristin Scott Thomas) who still lives back home in the U.S.
Billy makes an intriguing statement about the devil to his brother before he heads out looking for a 14 year old prostitute to satisfy his yearnings. He finds a 16 year old girl and proceeds to rape and murder her. He is discovered with the corpse in the trashed hotel room and the police are summoned. They call for a detective. “Lt. Chang” (Vithaya Pansringarm) shows up. He’s referred to by the other cops as “the Angel of Death” for reasons that become obvious very quickly.
He locates the girl’s father and brings him to the hotel room, where he locks him in with Billy. As one would expect, he beats Billy to death and emerges covered in his blood. He expects to be arrested for murdering a foreigner but Lt. Chang dispenses his own unique brand of justice with a krabi (curved sword) he carries.
Crystal comes to town to claim the body and take it home for burial and is angered when she discovers that Julian hasn’t yet killed the man who killed her oldest son. Julian, who had located the father was conflicted about killing a man who had killed to avenge the rape and murder of his daughter. Julian is also clearly a “mama’s boy” who was whipped long before he became an adult. Crystal tells him not to worry, she will take care of the death of the father and Lt. Chang for allowing him to kill her son. Who hunts whom from that point forward is what we’re supposed to be interested in and care about for the rest of the mercifully short (90 minutes) movie.
Lacking an engaging story and having a style that makes it difficult to watch, Only God Forgives challenges the viewer by giving us no one to root for or care about. Lt. Chang has an interesting system of values but his methods will offend some. If the actor portraying Lt. Chang looks familiar, you may have seen him in The Hangover Part II . Julian, Billy, Crystal and all their minions are flawed individuals without any redeeming values. Refn’s failure to develop anything of substance within the characters. Ryan Gosling is a talented actor but he has little to work with here. Only Kristin Scott Thomas, going against type as a foul-mouthed evil mother is fun to watch. Perhaps if we’d been given more Thai boxing and less retribution combined with cop karaoke bars, this might have worked.