The story here, as we come to understand it, is outlined more clearly in the press release synopsis than it is in the film itself. Julian (Ryan Gosling) is an American criminal hiding in plain site in seedy Bangkok. He and his despicable brother Billy (Tom Burke) run a kickboxing ring as a front for their malicious mother Crystal's (Kristin Scott Thomas) drug-smuggling empire. When Billy turns up dead after raping and murdering a teenage girl, Crystal descends on the city in all her garish mob-wife finery to collect his corpse and carry out the revenge she believes Julian incapable of enacting. The hitch there, of course, is that their target is also their hunter: Detective Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is the rather merciless 'god' of the title. He has the power to forgive, yes, but his brand of justice is a little bit more Old Testament. Much of Only God Forgives blurs in a slightly disconnected fugue state powered by the raw intensity of its pigments and its jarring, incomprehensible violence. The dialogue -when we get it- is at times laughably over-the-top, pushing its explicitness at best towards camp and at worst towards scenery chewing. Burke delivers it the worst, Scott Thomas the best as she plays deliciously against type. Crystal's dialogue tends towards the darkly, acerbically comic (though her chilly "I'm sure he had his reasons" hits with a loud note of audience discord) that allows the viewer to understand the deliberate, muscular purpose of the dialogue's sparse stylization. The same cannot be said of several of the other English lines, but thankfully, there's not much chatter here. Instead (as with Drive), we receive the story primarily through immaculately rendered images and \a rumbling score (from Cliff Martinez) that punches through to the pit of your stomach to fill you with dread.
Gosling seems to do very little with his character, but it's evident that what Refn needs him to do is to establish a surface placid enough for images and ideas to be projected upon. What we watch, ultimately, is an emptying of Gosling as pop culture 'personality' to the point that he's unrecognizable: a blank slate for pummeling, bleeding, and suppressing the familial id. In a bizarre way, he is transformed and made invisible. Crystal attempts to puppet his character, assigning him the role of son, husband, guardian, servant, and father even as she demeans him repeatedly by holding the wretched Billy on a pedestal. Though Julian has, supposedly, killed his biological father (likely at the behest of his mother), it's unclear whether he has truly assumed that paternal role. He is haunted in his dreams by images of a wrathful Detective Chang wielding his samurai sword, and those visions of his punishment interfere, repeatedly, with the erotically suggestive depictions of his desire to return to the womb. Within rooms of deep, dizzying red he is forever attempting to suppress his urges to reach back into the female form, forever combating them by imagining the severing of his own limbs by a furious 'father'. The colors, the atmosphere, and the themes all carry a tremendous weight, and the film feels heavy, burdensome, and somehow personally troubling. We are being punished too, but for what exactly? For wishing it into existence?
Audience relationship aside, the questions the film wrestles with are many. What is this punishment? How can we read this subconscious turn? What happens when Oedipus does not succumb to fate? When the pins are used for something else? When Titus Andronicus avenges someone else's daughter? When one of Tamora the Goth's sons may be repentant against the spirit of revenge? It's some heavy-handed shit, yes, and certainly not for general audiences. The plot is thin, the violence oppressively senseless, the acting often rigid, but there's something about it that makes you want to talk about it...and to keep talking.
If your heart and stomach are faint, you may need to watch Only God Forgives through your fingers. When you do so, as you probably will, try to appreciate the film's luxurious use of color. Shot on location in Bangkok, there's a hypnotic array of rich greens, reds, blues, and pinks to take in in a setting so foreign it becomes a sort of dreamscape. The visuals alone are worth a fair shake, though the film is certainly one that I can't recommend to most, and which I have to apologize profusely for dragging my family to in the midst of our travels. All the slicing and gouging felt like the distant past once the film ended, but my poor mother was justifiably angry, as I'm sure many others will be. All I can offer as solace is a reminder that if this had been Oedipus or Titus Andronicus, things could always be worse. At least here, you see, nobody gets ground up, baked into a pie, and fed to their parents...