Only God Forgives is the story of a man who doesn't want to play his archetypal role. Julian (Ryan Gosling, returning from Drive) is an American fight promoter and drug dealer operating in Thailand with his brother. Both brothers are odd characters. Julian sees a prostitute and has her bind his hands to a chair so he can only watch while she masturbates. His brother raises a ruckus in a brothel when it can't provide a 14 year old girl for him; finding one later from an independent contractor, he rapes and kills her. Enter a plainclothes policeman, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who takes the brother prisoner, then basically orders the victim's father to beat the American to death. Then Chang chops the father's arm off with a machete he keeps in a sheath under the back of his shirt; this is punishment for prostituting his daughter and a warning not to do that with his other daughters.
Already tormented by inner demons -- he has a premonition of Chang chopping his arm off, possibly before he's ever met the man -- Julian is now tormented by his fury of a mother, Crystal, (Kristin Scott Thomas), who demands that Julian avenge his brother's death. Not taking no for an answer -- Julian knows what his brother did but Mom assumes that her boy "had his reasons" -- the mother hires hit squads on her own to kill Chang. The hitmen shoot up a noodle shop but miss their target, who seems to live a charmed life. As Chang follows the trail back to the source, Mom increases the pressure on Julian to protect her or raise the stakes for Chang. Julian has the childish notion that things might be settled by unarmed combat ("You wanna fight?") between himself and Chang but the policeman kicks his ass Muy Thai style. Now Julian is motivated enough by the growing threat to his mom, and perhaps by the humiliation he endured at Chang's hands and feet, to agree to a plot to ambush the cop at his home. But he draws the line, a little too late actually, at killing Chang's family.Chang has no such scruples, but then again, Julian's family is guilty. So's Julian himself, if we can believe a story that seems to explain his mania to restrain his hands, but at least he has a guilty conscience, for all the good it does him.
If this film's fantasies of dismemberment put Refn in Jodorowsky's debt, it's hard to believe there's no similar debt to Tod Browning, the cinematic pioneer of dismemberment fantasies in weird settings. But I could be here all night listing all the sources of Refn's fantasia. Many reviewers focused on David Lynch because of the prominence of karaoke in the picture and the sheer weirdness of Chang having it for a hobby. I thought the karaoke scenes helped demonstrate how much of a self-dramatizing personality Chang is, as much if not more so than his ultimate antagonist, Julian's flamboyant diva of a mother. Chang is determined to stage-manage reality, from his certainly unauthorized on-the-spot punishments to his compelling the dead girl's father to do justice's dirty work on Julian's brother. One gets the feeling that his cop stooges are a captive if sycophantic audience for Chang's musical performances. Likewise, Crystal wants Julian to play a role in her personal drama of vengeance, striving to define him to other people, whether she's telling his Thai girlfriend about his sordid business (and belittling his manhood compared to his brother) or warning Chang that Julian beat his own father to death with his bare hands. For his part, Julian is willing to play the role of the dutiful son -- rebuking his girlfriend angrily when she questions her verbal abuse of him and excusing it with "Because she's my mother" -- so long as it contributes to the penance to which he's subjected himself. On some level Julian has renounced violence yet lives in a milieu where violence will be inevitable and the line he draws for himself matters little to anyone else. On another, he represents the folly of a violent movie passing itself off as a critique of violence.
Most reviewers saw Julian's issues as part of what they saw as the film's pretentiously derivative yet ultimately senseless weirdness. Many went further and accused Refn of racism, mistaking his portrait of an underworld that has Americans and other foreigners at its center for a caricature of Thailand as a whole. But Chang is the sort of avenging rogue cop that could turn up anywhere, rendered exotic only by his choice of weapon and his karaoke hobby. But I suppose that if I can credit Only God Forgives for its effort to be all-encompassing of Refn's influences, others might feel that the film is guilty of all possible sins. Refn's principal sin, of course, was his failure to meet a Hollywood standard of realism after passing that test with Drive. Instead, Only God Forgives is this year's brightest triumph of style as substance, from the lurid cinematography of Larry Smith to Cliff Martinez's menacing score, the best I've heard so far this year. It's all simultaneously alienating and alluring. While many see their disgust at it as proof of good taste, others will regard their own admiration as a mark of distinction. Ryan Gosling deserves a lot of credit for sticking with Refn for this picture, and for giving an eloquently minimal performance, but the real test of his courage will be if he works with Refn again. He deserves our encouragement.