“Only God Forgives” is the kind of remarkable disaster only a very talented director can make after he finds success and is then allowed to do whatever he wants. The director is Nicolas Winding Refn, the success was “Drive” (2011), and with this follow-up film — again starring Refn’s existential stand-in, Ryan Gosling — he retreats deep into the crannies of his own head.
Which is an unpleasant, bloody, and undeniably mesmerizing place to be. “Only God Forgives” was practically booed off the screen at the recent Cannes festival — two years after Refn won best director for “Drive” — and the general critical response has been that of a dog owner finding something nasty on the carpet. This is understandable: Refn has made an East-meets-West revenge thriller that plays out at a narcotized 16 r.p.m., whose characters (with one notable exception) move through their paces like zombies, and whose attitudes toward Asians and women are specious at best, cluelessly offensive at worst.
On a purely formal level, though, “Only God Forgives” pins you to your seat with dread. When it comes to creating masterfully controlled nightmare landscapes, Refn is within shouting distance of David Lynch (to whom he owes a substantial debt, whether he admits it or not). The early scenes unfold inside a Bangkok whorehouse whose rooms and hallways function as a tormented psychic space for whatever Freudian kinks Refn is working out. The walls glow carbuncle-red with foreboding; and Cliff Martinez’s synth score, almost as strong as his work in “Drive,” sets a mood of bruised, inescapable fate.
What happens in that landscape alternates between the grisly and the ridiculous. The movie is ostensibly about the battle between a drug-running crime family — of which Gosling’s character, Julian, is a reluctant enforcer — and a Thai police detective named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). The latter has a ceremonial sword strapped to his back with which he dispatches criminals’ hands, arms, and spinal cords in a regretful Zen due process. He’s an avenging angel who also happens to be bat-guano insane.
Julian? He might be the film’s conflicted hero if Refn gave him any lines or if Gosling gave a performance. You can bet these two have watched a lot of Alain Delon French crime thrillers from the ’60s and are going for that same stone-faced cool. But Delon’s characters had a ruthless forward momentum, whereas Julian is stymied time and again into inaction. It’s only when his mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), turns up a half-hour in that you realize, oh, of course, Julian is Hamlet.
Thomas singlehandedly raises the pulse of “Only God Forgives” into the land of the living, and moviegoers who still think of the actress as a sort of decorous art-house borzoi are in for a shock. The blond wig and cheap false lashes are only part of it. Crystal is imperiously vulgar and proudly savage — when she hears that her late oldest son (Tom Burke) raped and murdered a 16-year-old prostitute, she barks, “I’m sure he had his reasons.”
A dinner scene in which Julian brings his escort girlfriend (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) to meet his mother plays as pitch-black comedy, Crystal sizing the girl up in the vilest language imaginable. It’s great fun to watch Thomas let her hair down (or tuck it up, as it were), but her lethal quickness only makes everyone else look that much logier.
Refn’s vision of Southeast Asia as a maelstrom of freaks, whores, killers, and karaoke might be racist if it had any coherence. As it is, this stunningly shot film (Larry Smith was the cinematographer), with its frames within frames within frames, has no reference to any reality other than the movie unspooling behind its maker’s eyes. Every so often, “Only God Forgives” comes through with a sequence of surreal staying power: Chang brutally confronting a gangster (Byron Gibson) in a room full of hookers dressed as debutantes, for example.
Mostly, though, the movie plays as a fetish object in a gifted artist’s very private ritual, one keyed to a self-loathing that makes Lars von Trier seem like a model of emotional well-being by comparison. A repeated image in “Only God Forgives” is that of a man offering his hands up to be chopped off. One wonders if that’s what Refn thinks he’s doing with this film.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.