Nicolas Winding Refn, 90 mins, 18

Jonathan Romney on Only God Forgives: Ryan Gosling's revenge... a dish best not served at all

2.00

The 'Drive' star and Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn reteam to empty effect

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.

 

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week