Slicing up eyeballs: Only God Forgives

The older brother of muay club owner Ryan Gosling rapes and kills a child prostitute, is caught and disciplined by a lieutenant with the Bangkok police. How? Lieutenant Chang allows the girl’s father to kill him, then is himself punished (he loses his arm to a samurai sword) for letting his daughter fall into this wayward life. Although the club owner Julian, whose name the audience doesn’t learn until a third of the picture has elapsed, shows the man mercy, his mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) isn’t having it. Arranging for the man’s death also protects her drug trafficking trade. “I’ll take care of the yellow nigger that killed my son. Now get up and kiss your mother,” Crystal says after a scene in which she greets Julian on her knees as if to blow him. Crystal is bad because her hair is platinum, she smokes a lot, has high heels the length of a flagpole, and growls like Orson Welles as Unicron.

Played faster and with a director alert to hokum, Only God Forgives might have been fun. But Nicolas Winding Refn was educated. For the first twenty minutes he smothers his characters (who lean against an awful lot of door frames) in so much darkness and gold light that I didn’t know what was happening on screen but it didn’t matter because no one moved, Ryan Gosling least of all. Posing like a Ken doll installation abandoned in a Hou Hsiao-Hsien picture, Gosling is the worst cast art object in modern film. The frozen actors, fascination with colors and food and dress, and ritualized violence adduce Hefn’s treatment of Thais as half-savage Asiatics, of Thailand itself as a Fisher Price play set (every time Chang unsheathes the damn sword you’d think Hefn was capturing Commodore Perry landing in Japan). Only God Forgives is the kind of terrible movie that makes me reconsider earlier, cautious allegiances, like Refn must surely reconsider his relation to words. Poor Scott Thomas gets the worst of the lines; Refn forces her to say to a Gosling girl, “How many cocks can you entertain in that cum dumpster of yours?” which I hope sounds better in Thai than it does as failed blank verse. She thinks she’s imitating the Faye Dunaway of Mommie Dearest but she’s really imitating the Faye Dunaway of The Champ: a series of butch flourishes and oedipal contortions, like the rest of his movie.

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