The new film by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn is a luxuriously squalid affair. Now, I hugely admired Refn's work when it was just squalid, without the luxury – his Pusher trilogy, set in the Copenhagen underworld, is a superb example of the crime drama as bleak moral tale. Since then, he's spun into more exotic terrain – I would even defend to the rusty, blood-spattered hilt his bizarre foray into Viking primitivism, Valhalla Rising.
Refn consolidated his auteur reputation with the US-set Drive, but that was where I turned off (I can tell you precisely where: at that ludicrous grand-guignol-with-extra-ketchup head-stomping scene). I find even less substance in his follow-up Only God Forgives, though it's clearly the work of a hugely talented director. But there's a yawning gap between the film's seductive elegance and its ostentatious emptiness. Only God Forgives resembles a gorgeous gift box containing nothing. Or perhaps containing a severed limb fastidiously tied with a silk bow.
Much of the vacancy comes from star Ryan Gosling, whose dreamy blankness has tarnished oddly since Drive. He plays Julian, who apparently manages a boxing club in Bangkok – although "managing" it seems to consist of moodily swanning around (Gosling's detached stride rather recalls the Pink Panther in slo-mo), and standing framed in chiaroscuro against gold-lit windows.
Julian has a much meaner brother, Billy (Tom Burke), whose slaughter of a young prostitute triggers a revenge tragedy in a style you might call Bangkok Jacobean. Enter taciturn cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the God of the title, though anything but forgiving. Chang starts his inquiry by encouraging the dead girl's father to kill Billy before hacking off Dad's arm as a lesson in paternal responsibility. Chang dispenses wild justice with a ceremonial sword that he keeps tucked away down the collar of his natty navy blue safari suit, then likes to relax by singing karaoke ballads to his troops – a one-man Bangkok PD's Got Talent.
Enter Julian's terrifying mobster mama, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. I'll say that again: Kristin Scott Thomas, and perhaps I should add, '"As You've Never Seen Her Before". In blonde Donatella Versace tresses, decked out in high-trash couture, and spitting out her words in ice-cold American, KST's Crystal is a truly nasty piece of work, and it's no wonder that the actress seized the part. For one thing, she gets lines more full-blooded than she ever has in those classy French films she makes these days. And you don't get expressions like "cum dumpster" in Gosford Park. Genuinely chilling, KST is the film's prime asset – even though the character development seems stuck slightly at the idea of her playing a castrating bitch, and Refn doesn't quite encourage her to push this intriguing performance to the point of real transcendence.
Whether the dialogue really works is moot. "Billy raped and killed a 16-year-old girl," reports Julian. "I'm sure he had his reasons," Crystal calmly replies. In theory I can imagine a context in which this exchange would register as shockingly funny or bracingly outrageous. But that context isn't this film, where everything comes across as an indulgence in provocateur cool. Ultimately, everything here – the violence, the iciness, the orientalism, the lifestyle eroticism – registers as arch contrivance. Bangkok, glimpsed as a real city only in a couple of exterior sequences, is reduced to a designer backdrop for its Western hero's perdition – a sex-and-death theme park of the damned.
That the film is so supremely elegant only exacerbates the hollowness. Julian's Thai girlfriend Mai (Ratha Phongam) is barely a character, but a sublime item of set dressing, often seen steeped in blue, gazing enigmatically through red beaded curtains. Edited for maximum dislocation, Only God Forgives is less a coherent narrative than a gorgeously alluring sequence of stills. Cinematographer Larry Smith colours it with magnificent richness: deep blues, reds, and purples; black and gold; an incredible shot of Scott Thomas in blue, purple and green, like a malign human bruise. There's an exquisite morbidity in the slow camera crawls before eruptions of horror, and Cliff Martinez offers a genuinely nerve-grating score, setting growling horns against an underlay of dentist's-drill screech.
But all this effect adds up to something detached and hyper-consciously poised – a fashion-shoot impression of a revenge drama. There's the germ of a convention-subverting idea in making Gosling's ostensible tough into a feminised Weak Son, but his Julian never seems more than a listless nebbish. Even the moments of extreme violence are rendered into gratuitous and abstract routines.
Refn is a brilliant director when applying himself to something meatier than this ponderous chic. God might forgive, but I suspect the no-nonsense hoods of the Pusher trilogy would take a very dim view of such glossiness.