Gosling portrays Julian, a Bangkok drug dealer and kickboxing promoter whose sole function in the film is to glare, or glower, while the blood-red neon glows all around him. This is the worst, least, dumbest picture made by people of talent this year, although Kristin Scott Thomas has fun as the Gosling character's reptilian mother, who swans into town to avenge the murder of her scummy other son.
Julian reverts to a nervous state of adolescence in the presence of his castrating drag queen of a mom, who urges Julian to quit with the Hamlet routine and start snapping some necks or something. "Only God Forgives" finds Refn in a similarly uncertain state of cinematic adolescence. As Julian is shadowed by a sword-wielding retired cop (Vithaya Pansringarm), the tit-for-tat violence grinds on, the images of empty hallways, cavernous interiors and Bangkok's seamy postcards from the edge become insufferably self-conscious.
This is no-pulp pulp, as thin as it comes. While Refn is a skillful interior designer, "Only God Forgives" dies a hundred deaths each time we wait for the next act of vengeance. Many movie directors enjoy long and prosperous careers exerting little or no moral intelligence, and I fear Refn may be one of them. He adores the glacial, creeping anticipation of gorgeous splatter to come. And that's all he's good for: benumbed dread, all dressed up with no place to go. When the acts of torture arrive, we're never meant to think about them long — just long enough to notice how the blood looks on the wall, for example. Nice! It always looks really nice.
"Drive," which many adore, worked well for a half-hour or so, but its sadistic excesses became a drag. "Only God Forgives" is like "Drive" without the first 30 minutes of "Drive." Call it "Stall," and while Scott Thomas pulls some cleverly ferocious line readings, there's only so much a game actress can accomplish by her lonesome. The movie runs 89 minutes. It feels a tad longer.
'Only God Forgives' -- zero stars
MPAA rating: R (for strong bloody violence including grisly images, sexual content and language)
Running time: 1:29
Opens: Friday in theaters, VOD and digital download.