For his follow-up to Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn deals with some very familiar terrain; in Only God Forgives we have Ryan Gosling as the quiet-but-complicated lead, who gets himself tangled up in a violent world where a bloody end is inevitable. There is that same composer, Cliff Martinez, creating yet another propulsive, spine-tingling score. And there are the same visual cues--deeply color-saturated light, intricate angles, shadows obscuring and revealing just enough--that will have you wondering if, on paper, Refn just made an unrelated sequel to the immensely popular tale about a getaway car driver.
But don't be fooled: Only God Forgives is no Drive. The storyline to Refn's latest is straightforward: Julian (Gosling), who runs a boxing club with his brother in Bangkok as a front to a thriving drug smuggling operation, is tasked with avenging his brother's death by his ball-busting mother (played with over-the-top panache by Kristin Scott Thomas--you'll swear she's the latest member of The Real Housewives of New Jersey). But the thing is, his brother is far from innocent (he was killed in retaliation for raping and killing an underage prostitute), and there's someone else--the local police chief--out to avenge her death. What follows is a bloody, cat-and-mouse chasing, bloody, sleek and shiny, bloody, music-propelling plot. (Did I mention that it's really, really bloody?)
Whereas Gosling in Drive gets himself in a mess because of his desire to be a part of a family, in God Only Forgives he inherits this mess because of a family he's already a part of, despite what we gather to be his deep-seeded distaste towards them. In one, Gosling's character may be making the wrong decisions but he's doing them for the right reasons; in the other, he's making the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons. And that's what creates the major difference between the two: While The Kid is humanized as someone who, although short with words and capable of stomping you into a mushy pulp, is driven by a deep longing for love, Julian comes off as a knuckle-cracking emotionless robot with some serious mommy issues.
And though Only God Forgives is engaging to the point that you'll be holding your breath until the very final scenes (in between closing your eyes at the most violent moments), not to mention so stylized visually that it's hard not to marvel at how the movie looks, it's hard to feel anything about anyone here. No, not even Gosling.
Only God Forgives comes out Friday, July 19.