Nicolas Winding Refn is a visionary—a barbarian poet, a scuzzbucket craftsman with an expert eye for the beauty of the obscene. But is every one of his visions worth sharing? The last time the Danish director manned the wheel of a Ryan Gosling vehicle, the result was a near-masterpiece of genre hybridization. So it’s more than a little disappointing to report that Only God Forgives, the pair’s second collaboration, is no Drive. In fact, it sometimes plays like a grotesque parody of that 2011 triumph, with Refn amping up the limb-slashing, head-bashing savagery and filtering out all traces of doomed-romantic grandeur. The results are sometimes striking, in pure visual terms, but rarely engaging; even as a brutish saga of underworld retribution, the film fails to get the heart pounding.
The problems begin with Gosling himself, cast again as a near-mute urban samurai. In Drive, the actor telegraphed flares of big emotion passing behind his steely baby blues, but there’s nothing to read in the expressionless stone-face he adopts here. Perhaps that’s because his character, who runs a Thai boxing club that’s a front for the family drug business, has no one in his life to love. Instead of making eyes with a pretty neighbor, Gosling plants himself in a chair and dispassionately gawks at a masturbating prostitute (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam). It’s the film’s most meaningful relationship, consummated through a monotonous routine that’s an inadvertent metaphor for watching the movie: Like this emotionless cipher, all viewers can do is stare joylessly at the degradation on display.
The plot, if it can be called that, commences when Gosling’s dimestore-sociopath brother (Tom Burke) butchers a hooker, a vicious crime that sets off a string of eye-for-an-eye slayings. A sword-wielding, karaoke-loving bad detective (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows the dead girl’s father to murder the brother; retaliation provokes more retaliation, an endless cycle of slit throats, point-blank executions, and other nasty bits of business that wouldn’t feel out of place in one of Refn’s Pusher movies. Gosling’s mother, a foul-mouthed dragon lady played by Kristin Scott Thomas, wanders into the fray, relishing every showy obscenity the script crams into her maw. “Billy raped and killed a 16-year-old girl,” Gosling reminds her. “I’m sure he had his reasons,” she fires back. Scott Thomas’s Oedipal burlesque show reaches its comic nadir (or zenith?) during a sitcomish detour, in which the grieving matriarch slanders everyone in sight and compares her sons’ dick sizes. She almost, but not quite, upstages the carnage.
Ruthlessly committed to this gutter-sniping nonsense, Refn directs the hell out of every scene, every moment, every frame. He’s a master of atmosphere, creating a nearly Kubrickian dread through long, slow plunges into Gosling’s den of sin, and drenching his characters in harsh pools of blood-red light and the neon glow of Bangkok nightlife. It’s a gorgeous headache of a movie, propped up by another hypnotic Cliff Martinez score and graced with just enough expressive touches to make it look, if viewed from far enough away, like the existential joyride that preceded it. But be forewarned, Drive fans: There are no real human beings here. No real heroes either.