The wallpaper emotes more than Ryan Gosling does in “Only God Forgives,” an exercise in supreme style and minimal substance from “Drive” director Nicolas Winding Refn. In retrospect, the controlled catatonia of Gosling’s previous perfs is nothing compared to the balled fist he plays here, a cipher easily upstaged by Kristin Scott Thomas’ lip-smacking turn as a vindictive she-wolf who travels to Bangkok seeking atonement for the death of her favorite son. As hyper-aggressive revenge fantasies go, it’s curious to see one so devoid of feeling, a venality even “Drive” fans likely won’t be inclined to forgive.
In the Cannes press notes, Refn reveals, “The original concept for the film was to make a movie about a man who wants to fight God,” which could explain the hellish red glow of the neon underworld that Julian (Gosling) inhabits. Together with older brother Billy (Tom Burke), he runs a crooked Bangkok boxing club — an archetypal den of sin borrowed from “The Set-Up” and its film-noir ilk, where the fights are rigged and the whole operation serves as a front for more serious crime.
Twisted madonna readings aside, there’s little to link Julian’s struggle to traditional Christian belief, suggesting that the deity at whom Refn and his characters shake their fists is likely of a more Greek temperament. That interpretation fits better with the siblings’ Oedipal-inflected rivalry and the generally fickle way in which the all-powerful local police chief, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), seems to make the rules up as he goes along.
The trouble starts when Billy goes out looking for an underage hooker not only to defile, but to beat beyond recognition. Discovering the corpse, Chang orders the girl’s father to even the score (the only thing to ameliorate the ensuing carnage is the fact that the red-lit room masks the blood). As is so often the case when it comes to violent payback, the gesture merely serves to escalate the situation, and Julian is technically at a disadvantage, considering Chang represents the law, specifically the law of lex talionis, which he enforces by sword, chopstick or whatever sharp implement happens to be at hand in Refn’s characteristically brutal style.
Incensed by her son’s murder, Crystal (Scott Thomas) checks into her Bangkok hotel looking like a bleached-and-bronzed Donatella Versace, commanding instant authority as she berates the establishment’s trembling manager. From the moment she arrives onscreen, the actress flirts with her character’s larger-than-life camp persona, presenting herself as a rival god willing to clash thunderbolts with any takers. Rather than doing the dirty work herself, however, she commands Julian to carry out her revenge.
Like exploitation enthusiast Quentin Tarantino, Refn is that rare lover of bad movies who also has the chops to elevate grindhouse material to the stature of art — a welcome talent in cases where schlock-drawn directors’ ideas are rich enough to transcend genre (for Refn, “Bronson” came awfully close a few years back). Certainly, there’s enough here to fuel a lifetime of therapy sessions, as Refn extends his recent tendency of using cinema to wrestle his demons onscreen. The trouble is, he’s in such expert command of technique (reteaming with “Bronson” d.p. Larry Smith and “Drive” composer Cliff Martinez) that few will see beyond the surface.
This is where Gosling’s inscrutability becomes a liability to the film, considering that audiences need clues as to what the character is feeling if they’re to invest anything in his journey. Does he care that his brother has died? Is he intimidated by or merely obedient toward his mother? When it comes to character psychology, the film offers only one clue: a bizarre monologue in which Crystal reveals her surviving son’s inadequacy, “what with Billy being the older brother and having the bigger cock. … How can you compete with that?”
Scott Thomas has never had a role quite like this to sink her teeth into before, and the typically even-keeled star relishes the opportunity to play such an arch matriarch (though she’s no match for Jacki Weaver’s cunningly manipulative mama bear in “Animal Kingdom”). But like so much else in “Only God Forgives,” her performance ultimately rings hollow. There’s no indication that her manipulative character genuinely loves anyone, just as it’s impossible to tell what, if anything, excites Julian, who accepts lap dances and amputations with the same unfazed expression.
That leaves only the artifice to excite Refn’s fans, soaking in an ambiance of electronic music and fluorescent light as they try to imagine the years of trauma that have numbed Julian to such a state. Watching Gosling withhold, one can practically hear the director behind the camera, demanding take after take, as he shouts, “Let’s try it again, only this time, more impassive!”