Critic’s Pick: ‘Only God Forgives’

Must-See Movies Beyond the Blockbusters

We’ve all heard the stories of the Cannes Film Festival audience booing the premiere of "Only God Forgives," Nicolas Winding Refn’s first film after "Drive" with Ryan Gosling back front and center. Not very forgiving, huh?

Those who are less judgmental, or less enamored of the sentimentality of "Drive" -- and "Bronson" die-hards -- will know to lower their expectations and see what strange, stylized crime drama the Danish director is serving up this time.

"Only God Forgives" is not "Drive 2" even if America’s sexiest curmudgeon stars. Gosling may don the wife-beater and bloody his fists -- and the spoken language is most frequently English -- but this is definitely a foreign film.

The plot could hardly be simpler: Gosling plays Julian, a Bangkok black-marketeer. One steamy night, after a hard day working in the underworld, Julian’s older brother Billy (Englishman Tom Burke) picks up a hooker, then brutally murders her in a tawdry hotel room.

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Enter slice-n-dice policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), not one to let white devils pull this crap on his turf. Chang ensures Billy won’t pull that stunt again. Ever.

Before long, the boys’ bloody mama, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives. The dead-ringer for Donatella Versace has traveled 8,000 miles from the U.S. to retrieve her elder son’s body and avenge his death, while inflaming Julian’s Oedipus Complex.

This can’t end well. And it doesn’t.

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In a mad turn of casting against type, Scott Thomas electrifies, trash talking with a broad American accent in the kind of mean matriarch role that delivered Jacki Weaver an Oscar nomination for "Animal Kingdom." Gosling does his very, very, very slow burn – and then pops. And Pansringarm’s cop, who occasionally pauses the action to sing, lounge style, to his colleagues, is a standout for the actor’s quietly coiled coolness.

Punctuated with raw humor and rancid violence, "Only God Forgives" presents an atmospheric Asian crime tableau bursting with of arresting set pieces. In one torture scene set in a fancy bordello where Chang uses an associate of Billy and Julian for a pin cushion, it’s the images of the elegant prostitutes with their perfect make-up and hair closing their eyes to the violence at Chang’s insistence that tattoo themselves on the viewers retinas. Plot, what plot?

Cannes audiences may be less forgiving than God, but Refn’s divisive martial arts movie digs in to its own stylish groove abetted by a killer performance from the queen of British period restraint, Scott Thomas.

Bottom Line: Refn and Gosling “Drive” off a genre cliff and Scott Thomas is there to catch them