You’ve got to hand it to Nicolas Winding Refn. Only a filmmaker of his supreme self-confidence is willing to put one of the most charismatic stars on the planet in his movie, only to reduce his leading man’s face to an unrecognizable mess by the film’s end.
The swollen, bloodied features in question belong to Ryan Gosling, who in “Only God Forgives” hands out and receives beatings with such metronomic regularity that they feel like the big dance numbers in bad musicals: showy, artificial and meaningless. In some ways, “Only God Forgives” qualifies as a follow-up to Refn’s 2011 film, “Drive,” which starred Gosling in a similarly terse, somber performance. But where that film cleverly addressed its own pulp-crime genre and the artifice of Hollywood, here Refn advances nothing but his own obsessions, which quickly grow tiresome. He has often proudly declared himself to be a “fetish filmmaker,” interested in making movies purely on the basis of what attracts him. The problem with fetish filmmakers is that they’re only interested in pleasing themselves; the audience, for its part, doesn’t figure.
Presumably, “Only God Forgives” will manage to find its share of dedicated viewers — in this case, people turned on by lurid, neon-colored nightscapes, Asian martial arts, graphic brutality, body horror and the perverse thrill of hearing English rose Kristin Scott Thomas deliver arias of vulgar verbal abuse. Here she plays Crystal, a blonde cougar who has arrived in Bangkok to avenge the death of her favorite son by way of her least-favorite son, Julian (Gosling).
Cruel, immoral, racist and just a bit incest-y, Crystal is a monstrous mother who makes Euripides look like Louisa May Alcott. This is a woman who, when she hears that one of her offspring raped and killed a 16-year-old girl, says, “I’m sure he had his reasons.” When “Only God Forgives” made its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the performance was the talk of the Croisette, but anyone who witnessed her gloriously foul-mouthed turn in “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” had seen it before (albeit not in such toxically concentrated form). What’s more, once the initial jolt has worn off, Crystal isn’t nearly as interesting as, say, Jacki Weaver’s character in “Animal Kingdom,” a criminal den-mother of fascinating contradictions.
Instead, Refn is content to let Scott Thomas simply be ugly — inside and out — while Gosling smolders soulfully, clenches his fists laconically and otherwise sleepwalks through a modern-day Bangkok filmed to resemble one of hell’s more tawdry outer circles. Slow, methodical and mannered, “Only God Forgives” suggests that Refn — whose impressive earlier outings include the similarly violent “Valhalla Rising” and “Bronson” — has hit a nihilistic dead end. Rather than bold and subversive, his fetishism feels hermetic, claustrophobic and exhausted. The most objectionable thing about “Only God Forgives” isn’t that it’s shocking or immoral, but that it’s so finally, fatally dull.
R. At AFI Silver Theatre and Angelika Film Center. Contains strong bloody violence, including grisly images, sexual content and profanity. 89 minutes.