Movie review: “Only God Forgives” only disappoints

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From the July 25, 2013 edition

I may well see a worse movie than “Only God Forgives” this year, but I definitely won’t see a more disappointing one.

This, after all, was a reteaming of the actor (Ryan Gosling) and director (Nicolas Winding Refn) behind “Drive,” which landed at No. 2 on my top-10 list for 2011. “Only God Forgives” was one of my most anticipated movies of the year.

What I got was a stylish, self-indulgent movie so overloaded with allegory that the plot loses all coherence and the characters lose all feeling.

Julian (Gosling) is an American running a Thai boxing ring in Bangkok. When his brother is killed in retribution for a despicable act, Julian’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) flies to Thailand to pressure her son to avenge the death.

If you thought Gosling’s “Drive” character was silent and brooding, wait until you get a load of Julian. Gosling doesn’t speak a line on-screen until around the 24-minute mark. He barely emotes at all, which is a common theme among these characters.

It’s clear Refn is using the characters here more as jumping-off points to explore themes (punishment, morality, Oedipal stuff) than as relatable human beings. The problem is that audiences are generally made up of human beings.

It’s not that there isn’t a place for this sort of audacity. There are splashes of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick — cinematographer Larry Smith also shot “Eyes Wide Shut.”

One obvious influence (even stated by Refn) is noted provocateur Gaspar Noe. “Only God Forgives” is a grimy revenge tale reminiscent of the polarizing (but powerful) “Irreversible.” That film is equally tough to watch, but far superior.

Refn doesn’t bother with drawing us in to these characters, so his film lacks the visceral punch that he tries to wring from its bursts of violence.

I actually went home after watching this to rewatch “Drive” to see if it was as good as I remembered. It is, but that’s because it has characters and a story, which it turns out are important in film.

“Only God Forgives” is gorgeously shot and always seems to be setting up better things, but I’m going to have a hard time forgiving Refn for this misfire.

“Only God Forgives”

Now playing

1 1/2 stars out of 4