Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” (2011) was a tightly coiled, visually brilliant existential thriller that moved through a pulp noir Los Angeles with a sleek intelligence that did not, however, always honor traditional narrative tropes. It was an action film for the art house. And Refn won best director at Cannes.
His new film, “Only God Forgives,” is a cinematic meditation on violence and revenge where narrative falls away in favor of images of gore, martial-arts combat and gangster mayhem in an equally pulpish Bangkok bathed literally in blood red.
In production notes, the writer-director declares the concept of the film is about a man who wants to fight God. I doubt very many people while watching this nihilistic movie will get that impression.
No attempt is made to connect the provocative and artfully composed images of savagery and stillness — many scenes begin with actors posed as if in a still life — with any thoughtful purpose. There are glancing nods to Greek mythology and Shakespeare that only underscore the film’s essential shallowness.
Such is the Danish auteur’s cult following that “Only God Forgives” may well find a home in a few art houses. But where “Drive” was thought-provoking and stylish as hell, “Only God Forgives” is pretentious and annoying.
How pretentious? Well, the opening and end credits are in Thai.
Refn’s Bangkok is one derived from much recent fiction about that city, where everyone is a gangster, drug-dealer or whore. There is no moral high ground although one enigmatic retired policeman (I learned about his status only through those production notes) sees himself as an avenging angel. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is his name and he believes himself to be God, according to Refn.
The filmmaker’s collaborator on “Drive,” the superb and mesmerizing actor Ryan Gosling, plays Julian, a refugee from American justice who runs a boxing club in Bangkok. You later learn this is a front for a drug business run stateside by his mom, played by British actress Kristin Scott Thomas.
One must assume Scott Thomas took the role as a lark. For where else in fiction could she find a more deliciously repellent mother than Medea?
Decked out in long platinum-blonde tresses, legs that never seem to end, an Oedipal complex a mile long and permanent scowl on her face, she delivers the film’s major performance. And its major howler. Again, one must assume the line of dialogue is deliberately so.
She arrives in Bangkok to collect the body of her first-born son, meaning Julian’s brother. She demands to know why Julian hasn’t killed his murderer by now. It’s more complicated than that, Julian explains. Billy (Tom Burke) had brutally raped and murdered an underage prostitute.
(Incidentally, the director shows no interest in exploring what those reasons might have been. The brother just kills and then gets killed.)
The other notable howler comes when Julian tells his prostitute-mistress (Rhatha Phongam), with whom he engages in passionless games of bondage, “I want you to meet my mother.” Bad idea.
Cinematographer Larry Smith photographs a surprisingly deserted city that normally contains some 12 million souls in a dark, dark palette with long corridors, shadowy streets and poorly lit interior through slow pans and tracking shots. (Smith worked many years with Stanley Kubrick.) Red is the dominant color just as red accompanied every outfit Gosling wore in “Drive.”
That suits the film just fine since the gangster movie, such as it is, morphs into a revenge melodrama with beheadings, a torture killing and various throat and body slashings. Nothing like a mad mom and delusional crusader waging war through the proxy of mom’s son!
An uncommonly passive Gosling more or less plays the same silent character he did in “Drive,” only without the intestinal fortitude or determination. He seems somehow weak in his scenes with his mom. And even weaker when he takes on Chang.
Yet there is nothing reflective in his character, no question he’s trying to solve or action he wishes to perform other than to put his mom off the scent. Which he fails to accomplish since she hires goons to do what her son will not.
Cliff Martinez’s score often threatens to overwhelm the startling images as pounding ecclesiastical organ music and orchestral flurries drench the soundtrack.
Production designer Beth Mickle contributes kitschy sex clubs, a vast Muay Thai boxing club and claustrophobic karaoke bar as the backdrop for the mayhem.
God may forgive but will most viewers? Doubtful.
Opens July 19, 2013 (Radius TWC)
Production companies: Space Rocket Nation, Motel Movies Productions in association with Bold Films
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Rhantha Phongam, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke
Director-screenwriter: Nicolas Winding Refn
Producers: Lene Borglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent Maraval
Executive producers: Ryan Gosling, Christophe Riandee, Brahim Chioua, Tom Quinn, Jason Janego, Michel Litvak, David Lancaster, Gary Michael Walters, Matthew Read, Thor Sigurjonsson, Yves Chevalier
Director of photography: Larry Smith
Production designer: Beth Mickle
Music: Cliff Martinez
Costume designer: Wasitchaya “Nampeung” Mochanakul
Editor: Matthew Newman
R rating, 89 minutes.