On paper, “Only God Forgives” is a film I should love: Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas, both personal faves, star in a surrealist film noir set in the seedy brothel side of Bangkok, a milieu just waiting for some movies to be shot there. Its director is Nicolas Winding Refn, who hit his peak with his last film, “Drive,” which earned him the best-director award at Cannes in 2011. It has Cliff Martinez, one of the most original composers working in film today (“Solaris,” “Drive”), doing a hypnotic soundtrack, while the set design and cinematography — by Russell Barnes and Larry Smith respectively — make for an intense visual hit, drenched in hellish bordello reds that Gaspar Noe would surely approve of.
So why then did “Only God Forgives” — if I’m totally honest about it — suck so hard? Why did I almost doze off during the last reel? Why did I spend a couple of days tossing it around in my head looking for deeper impressions, and still wind up thinking it’s all a load of rubbish?
“Only God Forgives” is basically a blurry revenge flick, played in a trance, and drained of motivation, character and logic. Gosling plays Julian, an expat running a boxing gym in Bangkok with his brother Billy (Tom Burke), who exits the story early after raping and murdering a young girl — no reason given — and then sitting around waiting for his punishment. The cops show up, led by a veteran named Chang — Vithaya Pansringarm, playing the movie’s “god” — who decides the proper thing to do is let the girl’s father kill Billy in return, although he lops off one of the father’s hands afterward with a machete for allowing his daughter to work as a hooker in the first place.
The biblical concept of “an eye for an eye” is about the only motor driving this film, as Scott Thomas shows up as Julian’s queen-B of a mother who hires some goons to enact revenge on Chang when Julian refuses to. There’s also Julian’s hooker girlfriend Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), who seems to have zero chemistry with him, a number of scenes of Chang singing Thai karaoke ballads in real-time (with no subtitles included), and a few eruptions of torture and other gnarly violence.
Winding Refn has described “Only God Forgives” as his “acid trip” flick after the “cocaine” rush of “Drive,” but really, the catatonic acting and soporific pace here has much more in common with something like ketamine or other animal tranquilizers. Indeed, the film’s repeated shots of Gosling wandering through a dreamscape of murky corridors is nothing if not a visual analog of the notorious “K-hole.” The camera repeatedly gives us a shot from Gosling’s own point-of-view, slowly opening and closing his hands, which is entirely the feeling of watching oneself from a detached perspective that one gets from ketamine.
The film is engaging for the first half, simply for being so off-kilter and mystifying. But the deeper you go in, the more clearly you see that there’s little of interest behind the Lynchian facade. Although dedicated to mad genius Alejandro Jodorowsky, Winding Refn puts more imagination into the violence than anything else. For someone who claims never to have done drugs, perhaps a psychedelic movie wasn’t the best idea.