|'at every crime scene Chang shows up, makes a judgement and decides on a fitting punishment, like a blade-wielding diminutive Judge Dredd'|
A bewildering experience, Only God Forgives feels as though it is a film made along the outside edges of an interesting narrative. Constantly vague and detached, this is the kind of film which makes it incredibly easy for people to accuse art house directors such as Nicolas Winding Refn of deliberate and obstinate obfuscation.
Ryan Gosling plays a vacantly-staring protagonist with Mummy issues, tasked with tracking down and killing the man who killed his brother. The problems to that narrative come in the shape of Vithaya Pansringarm - said killer - and the fact that Billy - said brother - was killed having raped and murdered a young girl.
That should be enough drama around which to build a story but, for some reason, Refn isn't bothered about any of it. Gone is the pulp of Drive and in its place an apparent obsession with all powerful beings, foreboding and, perhaps, faith.
Chang (Pansringarm), embodies the vast majority of that, moving around the narrative ghost-like; all-seeing and powerful. Is he the God of the title? If he is then he's not doing much forgiving. I can't remember anyone actually saying he's a policeman but at every crime scene he shows up, makes a judgement and decides on a fitting punishment, like a blade-wielding diminutive Judge Dredd: death for some, the loss of a hand for others. Chang the avenger is an interesting concept but it never feels as though he is what Only God Forgives is about, nor does he get enough focus to suggest that either.
Meanwhile, Gosling gets rather lost amongst Chang and the bizarre sexually-charged musings of his mother, Kristin Scott Thomas. There's a difference between being strong and silent and having very little to offer (see: this versus Drive) and Gosling treads a dangerous line. The charged and emotive 'wanna fight?' line from the trailer is literally a one-off moment, the only other time Julian proves he has a temper an ill-judged spitting moment of tantrum.
As a Thriller, this is borderline empty, so come to it not for that but for the attempt by Refn to do something interesting around violent characters, their 'normal' lives and their inevitable downfalls at the hand of a higher purpose. Even then, it doesn't entirely succeed.