“Time to meet the Devil,” says Billy (Tom Burke), an American in Thailand who might be Satan’s punk brother. Hiring a teenage prostitute, Billy gets a little carried away: he rapes and kills the girl. That makes a business mess for his elder brother Julian (Ryan Gosling), who manages a Bangkok kickboxing arena as a front for the international drug-smuggling syndicate run by his venomish mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). Crystal flies in from the States to wreak her own special vengeance, and when Julian tells her that Billy violated and murdered a 16-year-old, she shrugs, “I’m sure he had his reasons.” No wonder both sons are Oedipal wrecks.
Mother love of the most depraved kind trumps creepo-noir conventions in Only God Forgives, which reunites Gosling with director Nicolas Winding Refn two years after Drive. That artsy cars-and-mobsters movie won the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival and landed on a few critics’ 10 Best lists. The new one got booed in Cannes. Which doesn’t mean it’s awful. What annoyed viewers was its adherence to the art-house rule for melodramas: play it slow, then bloody, then slow — bloody slow. On the plus side, the picture is a quick sit. You’ll be in and out in 90 minutes.
(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 film 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 Cannes 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. The only candidate for hero status — a possibly preternatural detective named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who ingratiatingly sings Thai ballads at the local karaoke spots — is less sensitive when he’s at work, behaving like an Old Testament God who’d rather decapitate a man than forgive him.
(READ: Rebecca Winters Keegan’s profile of Ryan Gosling by subscribing to TIME)
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, plus 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, I thought, was a Corliss Midnight Movie Festival rolled into one film.
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 topless hunks are not my thing — so why didn’t I care for the movie? Because the collision of violent spasms and art-film ennui left my 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 languor of lesser Helmut Newton. When first seen, Gosling’s 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 call girl, Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), as she masturbates with an almost ritualistic lassitude. It is a signal achievement to impose inertia on views of a beautiful woman pleasuring herself.
Scott Thomas, that aristocratic icon of English and French cinema, has wicked fun with her role. Dolled up in a blond hairdo and slinky clothes, she spits obscenities at her son, his girlfriend and a hapless hotel clerk. But her Crystal is like the infusion of a synthetic drug in a comatose patient; the character can never quite snap or slap this picture to life.
(READ: Corliss on Kristin Scott Thomas in The Woman in the Fifth)
That cedes the center of the film to the singing detective, whose long sword is concealed in a holster against his spine — is that how Wendy Davis kept standing for 13 hours in her Texas legislature filibuster? — and who metes out more punishment than even the miscreants in the 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 sit through the slow parts and stick around to see Him spindle and mutilate the sinners.
God and the Devil: they both demand blood.