Despite their extreme differences in content—the retro gangsters of Drive, the Danish drug lords of the Pusher trilogy, the wayward Christian vikings traversing their own personal hell in Valhalla Rising—there is no confusing a Nicholas Winding Refn film with that of any other director. He establishes his characters in neon-swathed worlds where long moments of placid silence are interrupted by jarring and brutal violence, doing the right thing often means doing horrible things to others, and innocence is the rarest of all commodities.
By all criteria, Only God Forgives is unmistakably Refn's work. In fact, the film takes all the director's trademarks—the violence, the synth score, the stoicism, the colors, the Ryan Gosling—and boils them down to a potent bouillon cube of a film, and the result is at once a visceral, purely cinematic experience and a numbing exercise in existential filmmaking. No wonder the film's Cannes debut elicited confusion and boos: Only God Forgives makes the metaphysical Viking mayhem of Valhalla Rising seem like a children's book.
That's no easy task, and on paper, Only God Forgives sounds about as simple as a film can get. Gosling plays Julian, an American expat in Thailand who runs a boxing club as a front for his Jersey-trash gangster mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). When Julian's older brother is killed after committing a particularly heinous crime, Thomas demands not only that the murderer be slain, but also the police who allowed the retribution. This sets her up against Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), an unassuming, karaoke-loving, sweater vest-wearing police lieutenant who may or may not be God, and who doles out blank-faced justice using a katana, eye-gouges and his fists as tools.
That sets the stage for a pretty standard revenge thriller, but Refn's not interested in simplicity—or coherence, for that matter. But damned if it isn't gorgeous to look at. Eyes Wide Shut cinematographer Larry Smith bathes the set in crimson, allowing the camera to slowly track down glowing hallways draped in gaudy floral wallpaper, posing each character with an almost obsessive attention to symmetry. The violence is stark yet gorgeously choreographed. The entire film plays out like a fever dream, with the narrative often interrupted by prolonged hallucinations. and characters behaving in such exaggerated ways that nothing seems entirely real. It's as if David Lynch and Gaspar Noé, whom Refn consulted for the film, decided to make a Thai gangster movie together, but subbed out the mob boss for a vengeful deity.
There are moments of pure, chaotic force, most of them perpetrated by Pansringarm, who lends an otherworldly sense of menace to the proceedings while hardly speaking a word, and by Thomas, whose mob maven is a boiling pot of rage and domineering oedipal complexity. Whenever these two characters are onscreen, the film comes vibrantly to life, crackling with electricity and fear that the only thing that can be expected is that the unexpected isn't going to be pleasant.
Yet, despite its dreamlike nature and frequent jolts, Only God Forgives rings hollow. It's a dreary and, despite all odds, forgettable exercise whose style overpowers its characters. Gosling, who proved in Drive that he can work miracles with minimal lines, is nothing but a statue posed in various vignettes here. The film makes the interesting choice of telling its tale through the eyes of an emotional blank slate, but there's simply not enough percolating to the surface to make it particularly engaging beyond its visual beauty. The film manages to drop you into an unimaginable, gorgeous nightmare. The style's amazing. The substance, though, may cause drowsiness.
Critic's Grade: C+
SEE IT: Only God Forgives is rated R. It opens Friday at Hollywood, Living Room Theaters.