The reunion of Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling is, indeed, a bizarre—but happy—one. As usual Refn’s artful direction of Gosling involves a parsimonious amount of dialogue. Combining equal parts William Shakespeare and David Lynch, Only God Forgives is the story of surrealist vengeance and redemption. Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian Thompson (Gosling) are two brothers (already it’s biblical) living in Bangkok for the purpose of running a boxing club drug front. While Julian seems primarily more interested in the boxing side of things, yet somehow less violent-prone than his brother, Billy comes off as sexually and financially rapacious. This much is evidenced in his treatment of the local prostitutes, which soon escalates into a bloody rampage that ends with him raping and killing an underage girl. Thus, the entire chain of scornful avengement is set in motion.
Upon discovering his daughter’s death, Choi Yan Lee (Kovit Wattanakul), her father, kills Billy in a blind furor. The police lieutenant on the case, Chang a.k.a. Angel of Vengeance (Vithaya Pansringarm), punishes Choi for prostituting his daughter in the first place by chopping off his hand. It is the first instance of Chang displaying his overt god complex—a compulsion he will showcase again and again. The abruptness of Chang’s drawing of the sword before he kills someone makes time seem to stop for a moment as you flinch in preparation for that final agonizing slicing sound.
Chang’s reign of terror is not questioned by anyone wishing to maintain his limbs. That is, until Billy’s aggrieved mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, in all her Donatella glory), lands in Bangkok demanding the comeuppance of Billy’s killer. Julian, a pugilistic pacifist (oxymorons are poignant), tries to oblige her request by seeking out Choi, only to learn the real reason why his brother provoked the murder. After relaying Billy’s crime to Crystal, she responds, “I’m sure he had his reasons.” Julian, who has also discovered the identity of the Angel of Vengeance from Choi, tries to focus on redeeming himself in his mother’s eyes by bringing his preferred pay by the hour girl to dinner.
In spite of Mai’s (Yayaying Rhatha Phonogam) well-dressed appearance, Crystal is not fooled when Mai claims she’s “an entertainer.” Crystal retorts, “And how many cocks can you entertain with that cum dumpster of yours?” Repulsed by the way Julian lets his mother treat them, it’s safe to say that Mai won’t soon let him have sex with her for free. Crystal, in the meantime, enlists an underworld criminal named Byron (Byron Gibson) to help her take down Chang. The job goes horribly wrong, leading Chang straight to Crystal after a gruesome inquiry in which Byron is tortured in a manner that might make you feel more uncomfortable than that eyeball scene in Kill Bill 2.
Trying to get back at the Angel of Vengeance ultimately proves fruitless, kind of like trying to smite God in retaliation for him smiting you. In the end, Refn sustains the same level of simultaneous understatement and buildup present in Drive—but this time, Gosling appears as more of a prop in the face of Scott Thomas’ blunt, unignorable persona. And then there’s that concluding karaoke scene with Chang followed by a dedication to Alejandro Jodorowsky that makes you forget everything else up until that second.