Actor Ryan Gosling and Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn first collaborated in 2011 with “Drive,” a bloody but ambitious film with a brilliant 10-minute opening sequence bathed in shadows and nearly devoid of dialogue. Critics admired the film and it drew respectable box-office numbers for its $15 million budget. The duo was the buzz of the film world.
When something works so well the first time, like the teaming of Gosling and Refn, it can make you feel like you have a “get out of jail free” card allowing you to push it to the limit. The result can be magnificent or it can fall under the weight of its own genius, like the duo’s new film, “Only God Forgives.”
In “Only God Forgives,” opening Friday, Refn takes what he did well in “Drive” to tedious and bloody extremes. There are shadows, but scenes are bathed in red, too (yes we get it, blood). Characters are silent for painfully long stretches. And Refn’s affinity for letting his camera sit for extended time on an actor (or body part) is used to mind-numbing effect. This is not a movie to watch with a remote. (Don’t mistake a “languidly paced” film for one that drags.)
Plus, Refn achieves the impossible with his overused technique: It becomes boring to look at Gosling, standing like a statue, in these lengthy, static shots. It should never be boring to look at Gosling.
“Only God Forgives” is set in the seedy underworld of Bangkok. Gosling is Julian, the owner of a boxing club clearly not on the up-and-up. When his twisted brother, Billy, seeks the pleasures of a young girl (“I’ll give you $15,000,” he tells a man for the use of his daughter), it ends badly. The cops find Billy and a dead girl in a hotel room. The head cop, the mysterious and sadistic Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), gets the girl’s grief-stricken father, locks him in the room with Billy, tells the confused man to do what he wants and leaves. A camera lingers down a long hallway (one of about 50 times you’ll see the same tracking shot) focusing on the shadow of a man pummelling another with a baseball bat.
That starts the domino effect in this slim, eye-for-an eye plot filled with psychotic, twisted characters; intense violence and torture; racism and incest. The sword-wielding Chang takes the grieving father, now covered in Billy’s blood, and cuts off his arm for allowing his daughter to become a prostitute. Julian seeks vengeance for Billy’s death, but spares the father’s life when he learns what his brother did. Julian’s vile and nasty mother (a disturbing Kristen Scott Thomas) arrives from the States to claim the body of “her first born,” then berates her living son for not carrying out the revenge.
“Billy raped and killed a 16-year-old girl,” Julian says.
“I’m sure he had his reasons,” Mommie Dearest snaps. When she runs her finger slowly down Julian’s muscular forearm, the full ugliness of the situation sets in.
“Only God Forgives” recalls the moody works of Brian DePalma and David Lynch (especially “Twin Peaks”) in its surreal, dreamy style and soundtrack by Cliff Martinez (equal parts noise and music). But “Only God Forgives” never lets you forget it’s being directed by a man with a vision – even if that overpowering vision dulls the senses for the viewer.
Only God Forgives
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Tom Burke
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Running time: 90 minutes
Rating: R for strong bloody violence including grisly images, sexual content and language.
The Lowdown: An American drug dealer in Bangkok gets caught in a vengeful showdown with a sadistic, mysterious cop. In English and Thai with subtitles.