Ryan Gosling sent a note of apology for his absence on the Cannes red carpet for his role in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. “I can’t believe that I’m not in Cannes with you,” Gosling wrote. “I was hoping to be coming but I am in the third week of shooting my movie [his directorial debut with How to Catch a Monster]. I miss you all. Nicolas, my friend, we really are the same, simply in different worlds and I am sending you good vibrations. I am with you all.”
Emailing from Detroit, Gosling put more emotion and craft into that note than he displays in his reunion with the Danish auteur of Drive, which won the Best Director prize when it premiered at Cannes two years ago. Here the star plays Julian, an American hoodlum holed up in Bangkok, where he runs a kickboxing arena as a front for the international drug-smuggling syndicate run by his venomish mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). When his horrible brother Billy (Tom Burke) is murdered for raping and killing a young prostitute, Crystal flies in from the States to wreak the vengeance Julian won’t. On their trail is a Thai detective, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who, went not singing sentimental karaoke at the local night spots, behaves like an Old Testament God who’d rather decapitate a man than forgive him.
(READ: Jessica Winter’s review of Drive)
Only God Forgives works overtime to be that species of art film known as the Authentic Weirdie. English is the main language spoken here, but the movie’s opening title is in Thai. The picture boasts glamorous moping from Gosling and a bold, deadpan-comic crazy-mama performance from Scott Thomas. Cinematographer Larry Smith, who worked on Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, paints with a studiously garish palette; the film could be called The Red and the Black. Black is for the sins committed after dark, and red is a vision of Hell imagined as a literally bleeding heart. Or maybe another internal organ. At the press conference, Winding Refn said that Julian “is bound and chained to his mother’s womb.”
Setting an Oedipal revenge plot in a martial-arts milieu, Winding Refn keeps the violence lurid and lavish. A grieving father’s hands are cut off in retribution for allowing his daughter to die. Another man loses his arm in a single blade slice. A psycho American cracks a pimp on the head with a bottle before assaulting his girls. A thug mows down dozens in a restaurant and, for his pains, gets a face full of boiling oil. An Aussie punk has slim spikes driven into his arms, thighs and eyes, before he undergoes an ear removal without anesthesia.
Winding Refn’s movie pays homage to many of my cinematic saints. It is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky and deeply influenced by passages in the films of David Lynch (the bad-dream nightclub scenes, which are pure Twin Peaks, minus the dwarf), Sergio Leone (the climactic three-way showdown from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and Gaspar Noé (the rough-trade violence of Irreversible, the alien-Asian tawdriness of Into the Void). Setting the film in a kickboxing arena promised the kinetic thrills of the wondrous action epic Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior. Here, surely, was a Corliss Midnight Movie Festival rolled into one film.
(READ: Corliss’s cover story on David Lynch and Twin Peaks by subscribing to TIME)
And yet, somehow, I didn’t go for Only God Forgives. (The title is a sedate play on the 1967 spaghetti Western, God Forgives… I Don’t.) I can guess why many of Gosling’s fans will be disappointed in the film: the spectacularly bemuscled star keeps his shirt on throughout. But what’s my problem? Again, as with my tepid response to the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, I ask, What’s the matter with me?
This time, I know. The collision of violent spasms and art-film ennui leave the viewer’s brain bloody but unfilled. Gosling (replacing Luke Evans, who instead chose to play the lead-villain role in Furious 6) is used as a dour fashion model, not an actor, and is photographed to mimic the chic lassitude of lesser Helmut Newton. When first seen, his face is tattooed by the kickboxing arena shadows; in another scene, he’s upstaged by the dragon wallpaper behind him; his most active gesture is to study his hands, bleeding into a bathroom sink, as if they were someone else’s fists of fury. Or he’ll stare at his favorite prostitute, Mai (Rhatha Phongam), as she slowly masturbates. It is a signal achievement to impose inertia on views of a beautiful woman pleasuring herself.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Furious 6)
Scott Thomas, dolled up in a blond hairdo and slinky clothes, has wicked fun with her role, spitting obscenities at her son, his girlfriend and a hapless hotel clerk. When Gosling tells her that Billy, her favorite son, raped and killed a 16-year-old girl, she shrugs, “I’m sure he had his reasons.” But she’s like the infusion of a synthetic drug in a comatose patient; her character never slips into the picture’s broody mood.
That cedes the center of the film to the singing detective, whose long sword is concealed in a holster against his spine and who metes out more punishment than even the creeps in this film deserve. This God is neither merciful or just; yet he’s the reason the movie may appeal to an action audience in its lowest depths. They’ll stick around to see him spindle and mutilate his victims.
On the plus side, Only God Forgives is a quick sit. You’ll be in and out in 90 minutes.