A dread-filled electronic score, neon, zombie-like performances and violent scenes of amputation – all fail to distract from the emptiness and sheer silliness of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bangkok-set, bloody and hilariously pompous revenge yarn ‘Only God Forgives’. It marks the second collaboration (after 2011’s ‘Drive’), between the Danish director and Ryan Gosling. He plays Julian, an American drug dealer in the Thai capital who is drawn into a cycle of blood-letting when his brother kills a prostitute. It’s refreshing to see Kristin Scott Thomas completely out of character as Julian’s hard-nut mother, who arrives from the US with waist-length peroxide hair and a soul made of steel. But it’s a shame no one asked her to pack convincing dialogue and to leave the hackneyed mummy issues at home.
It’s a film that takes place mostly at night, allowing Winding Refn to indulge a wearying fetish for neon. Even the grimmest locations are given a stylish boost by a glow of red or a flash of blue. Coupled with Cliff Martinez’s buzzing, lowly pulsating music, it’s distracting and nulling. Yet the lighting, production design and score are by far the film’s most artful elements. Strip them away, and you’re left with the bare bones of a straight-to-DVD B-movie plot. The story is simple, and essentially involves a series of killings punctuated by cliched images of characters singing in bars or little children providing a contrasting portrait of innocence. First, the police allow the father of the murdered prostitute to butcher her killer, Julian’s brother. When Julian seeks revenge he finds himself pursued by a mysterious, quietly psychopathic older detective, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Each death is more and more gruesome, and there’s an especially nasty scene in which a British bar owner is attacked by what look like steel chopsticks.
Very little happens beyond these explosions of violence, which leaves us to wade through a great deal of slo-mo and characters forever staring into the middle distance. We learn barely anything about them, and it’s Gosling who comes out the worst. He floats moodily through the film. When Scott Thomas describes him ‘as a very dangerous boy’, all we see is a buff male model readied for a risky fashion shoot. In one of the film’s few conversations, Scott Thomas’s lines and delivery sound computer-generated. Style over substance doesn’t really tell the half of it: you can bathe a corpse in groovy light and dress it in an expensive suit, but in the end that rotting smell just won’t go away.