Ryan Gosling has apparently decided that being a star means you don't have to act anymore, you can just stand there looking moody. In his new film he has reunited with director Nicolas Winding Refn, who gave him the coolest role of his career as the wheelman of Drive. Gosling's performance was pretty laconic – he just stared most of the time – but the film itself zipped along quite nicely in his slipstream.
In Only God Forgives, he's gone from laconic almost to catatonic, his expression one of unchanging poker-faced blankness, and the drama follows suit with lead-boots heaviness. In the long pauses his character leaves between lines you may find some useful catch-up time. I thought about what books I'd pack for my holiday, but you could also plan out those emails, tweets and epic poems you've been meaning to write.
The film is set in Bangkok, bathed in a nocturnal crimson glow, as if we were peering at it through a thin tomato soup. Gosling plays Julian, owner of a kick-boxing gym that's a front for his drug-dealing business. The film isn't 10 minutes old before his older brother (Tom Burke) has murdered a prostitute and been killed in turn by the girl's father.
This revenge has been connived at by a police chief named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who's got a funny walk and carries a big sword at his back – you worry when he pulls it out that he might do himself a mischief. He also moonlights as Singing Detective at a nightclub, watched impassively by his colleagues. Julian seems nonplussed by him, but then he's nonplussed by his girlfriend Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) too, preferring to watch her pleasure herself rather than do the job himself. Maybe he's in the grip of a terminal laziness.
Refn appears to be aiming for a Blue Velvet-ish mixture of menace and disconnection, but David Lynch was never this solemn, or this humourless. The electronic score (by Cliff Martinez) recalls the stylish propulsion of Drive, only this time Refn won't get out of first gear. In between the vicious loppings and skewerings performed by Chang the swordsman, the film moves so ponderously you fear it might snail to a standstill.
What partially rescues it, and provides the only reason for seeing it, is the arrival of Julian's mother, a foul-mouthed Fury with kohl-black eyes and flowing platinum locks. Imagine Donatella Versace crossed with Anjelica Huston in The Grifters and you're getting there.
Mom's first meeting with Julian's girlfriend gives the film an obscene jolt of energy, but there's an even better surprise: she's played by Kristin Scott Thomas. Her characters have often conveyed the impression of liking their steak bloody, but they've usually come garnished with sides of Anglo-French brittleness and hauteur. Here, Scott Thomas is an American monster of pure appetite, and she tears up the screen with it. It could be her answer to Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast.
The shame of it is that she's entirely wasted on the film. Only God Forgives proceeds at its drip-drip pace apparently under the illusion that it's got Major Themes to peddle. Director Refn has said that the original concept was to make "a movie about a man who wants to fight God". All I saw was a movie in which a man fights a cop and gets his ass kicked.
Strip away the noirish lighting and the high-end production design and you have a boring revenge melodrama without character development, emotional impact or moral nuance. If your idea of fun is watching Ryan Gosling sleepwalk through Bangkok, then this could be for you. But take something along to occupy the hellish longueurs in between.