Nicolas Winding Refn stood up before a Los Angeles Film Fest crowd on Thursday night to introduce Only God Forgives, his follow-up to the critically-acclaimed Drive. He described the difference between the films in terms of specific drug-taking experiences: whereas Drive was “like doing the best cocaine all night long” (and how!), Only God Forgives is a self-conscious acid trip that’s obsessed with locking itself and the audience into the present moment, with no hope of escape from the neon-soaked nightmare. Refn expressed his desire that we would all become one with our chairs by the end of the evening.
What he’s forgotten is that drugged-out adventures often make for banal storytelling when you’re hearing them secondhand, a problem that plagues this flat, obtuse film about the seedy underbelly of Bangkok seen through glazed eyes. Ryan Gosling stars as Julian, an expat American drug dealer and owner of a martial arts academy with the smartly appointed, GQ-ready wardrobe of Ryan Gosling. His brother, Billy (Tom Burke), is an even scummier drug dealer who murders a teen prostitute, then is murdered in turn by the girl’s bereaved father at the urging of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a corrupt machete-toting cop. This act of vigilante justice kicks off a chain reaction of increasingly extreme violence as Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), Julian and Billy’s foul creature of a mother, hectors her surviving son into seeking retribution against the architect of his brother’s slaying.
The film springs to life during the handful of scenes that play to Refn’s bloody aplomb (recall Gosling’s elevator stomp-a-thon in Drive). But the film needs something more substantive than the occasional arterial spray to keep us interested, and the wafer-thin plot is just not cutting it. Maybe it’s the heat in Bangkok, but Only God Forgives feels like lumpy, lackadaisical B-movie trolling from a director who’s capable of much better. Refn wastes Pansringarm’s appropriately steely performance and the pitch-black comedy of Thomas’ intriguing gender-inverse character (she all but swings around a pair of novelty brass balls), instead pitching everything to Gosling’s muffled monotone and fatal inaction. The result is a movie where the characters spend most of their time staring blankly at each other, as if searching for the modicum of tension required to make this story feel like an actual cat-and-mouse thriller. (It isn’t, not when Chang and Julian locate each other with an ease that renders almost all preceding action meaningless.)
It’s not bad to make a nihilistic movie, but it should be a crime to make one this lifeless. Only God Forgives is doomed once its moral torpor seeps into the actual craft of the film. Aside from the throbbing synths of Cliff Martinez’s excellent score, it’s tough to find a pulse in this sea of slack expressions, de rigueur brothel lighting, and interminable bouts of staring that rival the early installments of the Twilight saga. Contrary to Refn’s statement, you don’t have to be high to sit through Only God Forgives – but it probably helps.