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In Only God Forgives, Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a drug-smuggler in Bangkok whose mother insists that he find and kill the man responsible for his brother’s death.

Following their success with the retro-gangster melodrama Drive, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling did not do the obvious thing: cash in for a bigger-budget, crowd-pleasing Hollywood concoction. Instead, the director and star took a detour to Bangkok to make a bleak, allegorical, Asian revenge film with an obsessive visual design and a wisp of an Oedipal plot.

Gosling, while buff in a clinging white T-shirt, is neither heroic nor hot. Instead, he plays a near-catatonic, sexually repressed cipher (with one of the worst cases of mama's-boy blues since Norman Bates in Psycho) who comes to understand that his limbs are too short to kickbox with God.

Refn's expectation-defying choice is laudable in theory, but Only God Forgives is a pretty awful drama. What fascination it holds is as a claustrophobic visual tone poem, with cinematographer Larry Smith (Eyes Wide Shut) exploring dark alleys and sex-club corridors in blood-red and jaundiced-yellow-neon lighting, or holding prolonged portrait shots of characters against patterned friezes. (Gaspar Noé, whose 2002 high-concept horror film Irreversible tracked similar territory, is thanked in the credits). Composer Cliff Martinez's up-front score explores the gamut of ominous, showing influences of Bernard Herrmann and Philip Glass.

The set design and music are far more interesting than the story, which manages to come up short on both genre vitality and art-house provocation. The fun starts after a kickboxing match, when Julian's psycho older brother Billy (Tom Burke) commits a brutal crime, and the stone-faced police chief Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) takes care of business. Chang, who wears a black cardigan sweater with a long sword hidden in a sheath at the back, is, for allegorical purposes, the "God" of the title here, dealing out punishment with his terrible swift sword.

Julian, who comforts himself by having his hands tied to a chair while his favourite lap-dancer, Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), masturbates in front of him, can't manage to avenge his brother's death. Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) blows into town like a platinum-haired Cruella de Vil, batting her black-eye-shadowed lids and waving her cigarette. After establishing that she's not a pleasant person by insulting the hotel staff, she shows how nasty she can be. After grasping her son around the buttocks and stroking his biceps, she demands to know why he hasn't avenged his brother's death yet. When Julian awkwardly explains that Billy raped and killed a 16-year-old prostitute, Crystal snaps back: "I'm sure he had his reasons."

No doubt director Refn also had his reasons for creating this story, which he has described, in familiar Scandinavian terms, as about an argument with God and suffering through depression. Yet it all feels like it's in the same emotionally stunted state where Julian resides.

For no obvious reason, Julian decides to hire Mai to pretend to be his girlfriend on a dinner date with mom. Crystal, of course, sees through it and berates both of them in obscene terms – not because her speech makes dramatic sense, though it's a shock coming from Scott Thomas, an actress given to playing more demure period roles.

While Crystal strategizes in her hotel penthouse suite, Julian finds himself pitted against the police chief, who moves so quickly he appears to transport through space, wielding his retributive sword, chopsticks or whatever's handy to mete out justice. Not that Chang is entirely one dimensional. He also tends to a young daughter in his suburban cottage, and, in moments that echo David Lynch without the dreamy ambiguity, he likes to perform maudlin karaoke ballads while his officers stare on impassively.

That's the kind of movie Only God Forgives is – a series of violent and emotionally impotent vignettes, puffed up with ponderous self-importance. Apart from too rare splashes of poetic colour – a boy with a wise-beyond-his-years stare, a carefree three-legged dog on a sunny street – it's a movie to be endured as it revels in stupidity and then, predictably, seems depressed about it.