July 19--Drama. Starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. In English and in Thai with English subtitles. (R. 90 minutes.)
"Only God Forgives" -- ugly, gore-strewn and, ultimately, ridiculous -- is writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn's courageous yet bizarre follow-up to his highly successful "Drive." Once again, Ryan Gosling stars, but here he drifts through the film in a trance, as a passive victim in the Bangkok underworld.
Refn's commitment to "Only God Forgives" is impressive, even if the film can't be recommended. He hides his own style and creates a film that in feeling and aura seems like an Asian-exploitation picture. He includes scenes that few Western directors would consider inflicting on audiences, ranging from musical interludes that have bathroom break written all over them to grotesque images of hacked limbs and sliced-open intestines. So Refn's nerve is admirable, even if his film often borders on unwatchable.
Gosling plays Julian, the younger brother of a creep who gets murdered. He is going to avenge the death, when he finds out that his brother raped and killed a teenage prostitute and that the killer of his brother was the girl's father. That sounds like justice to Julian, and he's ready to drop the matter, until -- uh-oh -- his mother flies in from the United States to straighten things out.
Here is the one reason to see "Only God Forgives" -- or perhaps to rent it in a few months and watch it with one finger on the fast-forward button: Kristin Scott Thomas. This role taps what Thomas really is about as an actress -- funny, extreme, go-for-broke, eccentric -- but she almost never gets to show that in her English-language films. Here she does. As the mom, she is blond, seductive and comically vicious. One look at her and you understand why Julian is a bottled-up mess. Thomas appears in about a quarter of the scenes in "Only God Forgives," and every time she's there, there's something to see.
Alas, for the other three-quarters, there's a little to see and plenty to shield the eyes from. One of the running characters, who becomes increasingly prominent as the film wears on, is a vigilante detective (Vithaya Pansringarm) who goes around with a sword concealed underneath his shirt. If he really, really likes somebody, he cuts off a hand. If he feels less than warmth toward an individual, the punishments escalate.
Soon the appearances of the detective become an object of audience dread -- him onscreen just means another scene of merciless psychological torment followed by spurting blood and screaming. Yet, in the odd way things sometimes happen, the dread goes away, and the similarity of his scenes ultimately makes him a source of unintended comedy. Pansringarm floats in and out of rooms, walking like Jack Benny in slow motion, with his shirt untucked so as to hide the sword and with an expression of such unrelenting balefulness that he becomes impossible to take seriously.
Once that happens, "Only God Forgives," never sturdy to begin with, collapses completely.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @MickLaSalle
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