God only knows what Nicolas Winding Refn had in mind when he made "Only God Forgives."
The Danish filmmaker's latest theater of the macabre is brutal, bloody, saturated with revenge, sex and death, yet stunningly devoid of meaning, purpose, emotion or decent lighting. Seriously. Artful shadows can certainly set a mood; too many and it merely looks like someone is trying too hard.
That sense of overreach haunts "Only God Forgives." Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm, the film comes as a disappointment after the provocative intrigue of the brutal bad guys Refn diced so deliciously, if not delicately, in his brilliant 2011 neo-noir "Drive."
He's once again set violence's never-ending cycle spinning in "Only God Forgives," but the esoteric and philosophic shadings of the earlier film have gone to black. The evil ones are pure evil. The good are grotesque. And the "higher power" — a wrathful policeman named Chang (Pansringarm) — is a brute and a bully.
The movie reteams the writer-director with his "Drive" star. Gosling, so effective and affecting as the nearly silent stunt driver, has never been less dimensional than he is as Julian, a fugitive gangster managing his drug trade out of a Bangkok boxing club.
Opening the film with a boxing match — the warriors well trained, their bruising battle a ballet — felt promising. Working with veteran British cinematography Larry Smith (Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut"), Refn is so precise in framing the shots that a moment as simple as Julian walking through a doorway becomes a rite of passage. It feels ominous, gripping, mysterious. If only Refn could have held that longer.
The problem, or at least the first problem, is Billy (Tom Burke). Although the script that created the vacuous villainy of Billy is really at fault. Refn has a plot filled with dead ends, dead giveaways and too many characters like Billy and none of the trenchant dialogue that elevated "Drive."
Billy is Julian's brother and his partner in the crime game. Apparently still amped up by the excitement of witnessing the boxing match, Billy goes in search of sex with a 14-year-old virgin. When a brothel turns him down, he beds, then bludgeons a 15-year-old.
The murder introduces us to Chang, the ice-cold sword of justice. The kind of punishment he exacts from sinners whose paths he crosses is twisted and involves sharp blades and much melodramatic martial-arts' staged fighting.
Billy is being held in the room where he killed the girl. Her body and blood cover the floor. This is one of those moments when the darkness on-screen is a blessing. The father is brought in and ordered by Chang to take his revenge. Then the policeman steps in to punish the father. Two deaths, one dismembering, and the body count is only beginning.
Julian will be pulled into the fray soon enough. His tough-love mother and crime boss Crystal (Scott Thomas) is en route to Thailand. Her specialty is seduction, emasculation and ordering up death on a platter. From staging to dialogue, Crystal moves through the film in such ludicrous ways that the usually excellent Scott Thomas is uncharacteristically unbelievable in the role.
But before Crystal can further confuse things, the filmmaker wants to give us a sense of how screwed up Julian is. Weird sex, I guess, is as good a place as any to start.
It unfolds in a room that the film will return to many times — I'm sure there's a metaphor in there somewhere. Julian sits and watches as Mai (Rhatha Phongam) gets orgasmic at a shadowy distance. He looks at her. He looks at his hands. It's as if the present and the past are equally paralyzing.
From this point on, the movie will follow a haphazard series of chases, confrontations and killings that are occasionally broken up with more of Mai in the sex room. There is a long corridor that Julian will walk down many times as well. It has doors. Sometimes there are real things behind them, sometimes surreal things. Sometimes Julian seems to know what awaits him, sometimes not. Yet another languishing metaphor to consider should you be so inclined.
Gosling moves through "Only God Forgives" like a mannequin waiting to be brought to life. Julian sees without seeing, fights without fighting. There is no emotion. He may be alive, but he is not among the living. And all around him people are dying.
The enigma within an enigma may be exactly what Refn asked of the actor. Regardless, like too much else in the film, Julian is yet another one lost in translation.
'Only God Forgives'
MPAA rating: R for strong, disturbing violence including grisly images, graphic sexual content and language
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: In general release