The title sure gets it right. Moviegoers aren’t going to forgive director-writer Nicholas Winding Refn (“Drive”) anytime soon for this gruesome bit of filmic excreta.
“Only God Forgives,” which reteams star Ryan Gosling with the Danish-born Refn after the far more engaging “Drive,” is an ultra-violent and bloody crime drama set in Thailand but shot like a meditative arthouse film.
Gosling plays Julian, an American drug-dealer living and working in Bangkok. Trouble starts when his mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, in a long blond wig and doing her best dragon lady imitation), arrives in town.
Actually, trouble started a couple days earlier when Julian’s psycho brother murdered a young prostitute and was, in turn, fatally beaten to a pulp himself. Mom, who’s also in the drug trade, flies over from the U.S. to demand that Julian avenge his brother’s death.
This pits Julian against a high-ranking Thai police official, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who allowed the prostitute’s father to kill Julian’s brother. Chang himself wields a long, sharp machete, which he doesn’t hesitate to use to chop off the arms, heads and down through the bodies of various underworld figures.
There are lots and lots of shots of Gosling brooding (mostly he looks as if he’s having stomach pain) and walking through long hallways drenched in red lighting. He also spends time with Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), his passive prostitute girlfriend, and is regularly criticized and belittled by his nasty mother.
When we’re not following a sullen Julian, we’re watching Chan grill and abuse suspects. “Forgives” uses gore as a voyeuristic come-on.
None of this is the slightest bit compelling or engaging or anything other than a formalist exercise in excessive style. “Forgives” is one of those movies that pretends it’s profound but really means nothing.
Gosling has almost no lines. He has little to do here but stare intensely and project massive ennui and stoic hurt in the face of Mom’s continuing invective.
Scott Thomas is equally at sea. She looks like Madonna (the singer, not the mother of Jesus) in that blond wig and her acting isn’t much better, laying on the Queen of Mean shtick mighty thick. It’s the kind of over-the-top performance that draws laughs, even when it’s not supposed to.
As for the movie’s operatic ending, don’t even get me started. It’s silly, stupid and bloodstained. But at least it is the end. So in that way it was the best part of the movie.