God's verdict is out on blood-soaked Ryan Gosling vehicle Only God Forgives 

Crimson Pyrite

Crimson Pyrite

Nicolas Winding Refn's stated favorite color is red, and the evidence is all over his work: the crimson-soaked bars of Copenhagen's underworld in Pusher II, neon-saturated Los Angeles in Drive, the unnatural landscapes of the hallucinatory Viking expedition-gone-wrong Valhalla Rising. Like the last, Refn's new film Only God Forgives maintains its elliptical narrative approach with admirable rigor, but its cool in the face of prolonged carnage is ultimately misguided.

Where Drive was a sort of chivalric romance, with Ryan Gosling channeling his protective instincts into demonstrative violence, Only God Forgives is sleazier: a campily Oedipal mother-son drama in which Gosling is both Hamlet and Claudius, a blank-faced vacillator pausing before taking unjust revenge. Gosling's Julian Thompson runs a Muay Thai training gym in Bangkok, but his real urges are for monstrous mom Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). His brother dies in retaliation for the rape and murder of a 16-year-old prostitute, and Julian's understandably reluctant to kill righteous avenger Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Behind Julian's back, however, Crystal organizes reprisal, incurring cyclical retribution.

The film awkwardly lurches between these mother-son undercurrents and a wide variety of violence: savage eye-slittings in grindhouse close-up, samurai sword-wieldings, outdoor gunfire sprayed at an open-air restaurant (shades of John Woo's Hard Boiled). In a whorehouse that's both real and a setting for Julian's nightmares, the hallways glow dark crimson; cinematographer Larry Smith's camera slowly crawls through them toward an unnervingly dark door and beyond, as if the director couldn't quite commit to the horror-movie jump scares his pulpy material craves. Outside, the camerawork abruptly switches to lightning-speed moves reminiscent of the exuberant dashes of Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express.

These individual shots seem designed as events in themselves, but they don't acquire cumulative rhythm when strung together. A sympathetic viewer might say the movie visualizes the subjective evasions and memory gaps of a psyche fractured by incest and trauma, a plausible defense. But Refn's sudden jumps in location or omissions of random narrative connective tissue are consistent without being intriguing.

Refn's regular collaborator Mads Mikkelsen swears the director's 1996 Pusher inspired the self-consciously impoverished Danish Dogme movement. Refn's come a long way since those scrappy days: Pusher was underworld roughhousing played with handheld casualness, as its loutish antiheroes' bonding slowly segued into deadlier mayhem. Having toyed with all-out baroque in Bronson's Pet Shop Boys musical numbers and Drive's slow-motion raptures, Refn frames Only God Forgives from start to finish with ostentatious discipline. All it produces, though, is a tepidly laconic nightmare, one in which any transgressive urge is lost in an indiscriminate barrage of colors.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.



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