This is not a film for everyone, even those who enjoyed Nicolas Winding Refn's phenomenal Drive. While sharing the same director, star, and composer, these are very different films. The comparisons are unavoidable, and they are also misleading. Julian may share the Driver's economy with spoken language, but they are drastically different characters, and the tone and feel of Only God Forgives is far more in line with Refn's earlier work than with the movie that first paired him with Ryan Gosling.
Only God Forgives is definitely (and perhaps defiantly) not cut from the same sleek, understated cloth of Drive, nor is it constructed of the theatrical tapestry that made up Bronson. I agree with the reviewers who suggest that it has all the makings of a cult classic, a statement you never hear bandied about for an easily accessible film. While I cannot speak highly enough of the cinematography, the locations and sets, Cliff Martinez's score, and the cast (especially Vithaya Pansringarm as a fascinating and frightening Avenging Angel), this movie is demanding: Julian is a far less accessible and sympathetic character than the Driver and completely devoid of the charismatic flair of Tom Hardy's Michael Peterson/Charles Bronson, and it is not a quick ninety minutes. The unnerving and violent world of God Only Forgives is something that either pulls you in or it doesn't, hence the divide between critics and fans, with many either lauding high praise on the film or shaking their heads in displeasure and disbelief—there really isn't much in the way of middle ground. The film may fall a bit short of a masterpiece, but I am perplexed by the critics who were bored by Only God Forgives (see the Washington Post's review) or outright dismissed it. (This isn't to further perpetuate the argument being made in some corners that if you don't like or "get" this film you are betraying a total and complete lack of intellectual prowess, which I personally find to be a ridiculous and baseless claim. Ann Hornaday's intelligence is obvious and on full display throughout her dismantling of Only God Forgives in the aforementioned review.)
Only God Forgives is as noir as it gets, even while bearing the influence of David Lynch and being set thousands of miles away from noir's (and neo-noir's) usual stomping grounds. Where in Drive we wanted the Driver to succeed because we knew him to be a good person, there is no such foothold to be found with Julian. Other than being portrayed by the same devastatingly handsome actor, Julian is not an essentially good guy wrapped up in shady goings on. Where I truly cared about the Driver and his fate, I was fascinated by Julian, very much against my better judgment. Julian is that rare and wonderful noir character who we know to be broken beyond repair, a person we would actively avoid in real life, but that we cannot help but follow into the darkness. No matter what was thrown my way, and there's a lot thrown at you in this film, I still couldn't help but hope that Julian found a way out of the dark labyrinthine hallways that continue to ensnare and close in around him. There's something about the claustrophobic (and ever narrowing) path Julian is on that is endlessly intriguing, and doubly as unnerving. Where Drive builds up to its stranglehold, the hands are already on Julian's throat from the onset of Only God Forgives; as with all good noir, the rest of the film is watching the artful depiction of that violent struggle.
While short of a tour de force, I found Only God Forgives to be a truly remarkable experience. If you are curious (and have read this far), I'd say go for it (and you can watch it on Amazon Instant Video for $6), just be prepared for the waters to be rough. There's a lot to like (or at least ponder and discuss with friends) about this film—its intriguing and disturbing treatment of violence; the viscous, tangible, and nightmarish sense of dread that pervades the film; the fetishistic attention paid to hands; the phenomenal look, feel, and texture of the movie; Ryan Gosling's eyes; and, obviously, the ending.
Only God Forgives fulfills my one criteria for any "artsy" film—that it can fuel a lengthy and engaged conversation with friends, and there is no shortage of things to analyze, unpack, and discuss in Refn's latest work. Need to crank out a 10-15 page paper for a film studies, psychology, or literature class? You could easily hit that mark just focusing on the symbolic use of hands throughout this film, and I haven't even started in on Julian and his mother yet.