Forgive but don't forget gore
Film of the week: Only god forgives (18, general release, 90 minutes) 3 stars
Not many films achieve a standing ovation, booing and a mass walkout at the same screening, but that's exactly what happened to Only God Forgives at Cannes. Back in May, it was nominated for the Palme d'Or and lionised by critics like Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, but has since been eviscerated by reviewers in America, where it's done absolutely nothing at the box office.
All of which should give you some idea of just how strange and divisive a movie Nicolas Winding Refn's moody and staggeringly violent new drama is. Only God Forgives is neither as good nor as bad as flustered commentators have suggested, and while deeply unpleasant in parts, it is also a fascinating spectacle to behold.
Winding Refn continues his championing of style over substance. His last film, Drive, was wildly praised but profoundly superficial and has proved surprisingly forgettable in retrospect.
Only God Forgives contains moments you'll definitely want to forget, but is equally lacking when it comes to character and depth. Perhaps Winding Refn wished instead to create a visceral, nightmarish world where dreams and reality collide and everyone's motives and personality remain undefined.
If so, he has succeeded, but his film's universe is hollow and trashy and impossible to engage with, so much so that the staging of elegant ritualistic acts of violence seems to become Only God Forgives' sole and overriding purpose.
Ryan Gosling is Julian Thompson, an expatriate American who runs a Thai boxing club in a seedy neighbourhood of Bangkok with his older brother, Billy (Tom Burke). The club is really a front for an international drug smuggling operation run by the boys' shrewish gorgon of a mother. Julian grinds his jaws and says nothing but is clearly simmering with rage, but Billy is an out-and-out loon who vents his fury against womankind by visiting a nearby brothel and killing a 16-year-old prostitute.
In doing so, he earns the wrath of a mysterious plainclothes policeman called Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who brings the girl's unfortunate father to the grisly crime scene and orders him to kill Billy.
When Julian's mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) arrives in town, she demands vengeance for Billy's death, but after Julian tracks down the prostitute's father, he takes pity on him.
But things won't end that neatly, and Julian is impelled by his ghastly matriarch into a deadly confrontation with Chang.
Winding Refn's intentions in making Only God Forgives are rather hard to fathom. He has said that the idea was to "make a movie about a man who wants to fight God", but this is not illuminating.
Chang may think he's God, but in many ways is just another sadistic oriental caricature. Winding Refn is extremely cine-literate, and clearly a fan of Korean crime dramas and in particular the work of Wong Kar-wai.
But as with Drive, Only God Forgives seems like a great deal more than it is.
It's a bit like one of Shakespeare's more violent tragedies with all the poetry taken out.
None of the actors are given actual characters to work with, and though Scott Thomas does her best to sneer her Lady Macbeth-like harpie to life, she's wasting her time. As for Gosling, his performance here is exactly like his performances in Drive and Gangster Squad, The Ides of March and The Place Beyond the Pines, only even more minimalistic. It might be time to try some acting.
DIRECTOR: NICOLAS WINDING REFN STARS: RYAN GOSLING, KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS, VITHAYA PANSRINGARM