I beg your pardon, but Only God Forgives is complete bullshit. I'd like there to be a more intellectually suitable way to put my feelings than that, but I'd also like it if Only God Forgives wasn't such an artistically denuded, pointless waste of time and talent.

That's what's awful about it, really: this is a movie that was not made by incompetents. Writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn is every bit as much in control of his art as he was making Drive, his much-adored previous collaboration with Ryan Gosling in the role of a barely-speaking tough guy in a world of inexplicable and uncontrollable violence; there's no doubt that this is the movie he wanted to make, and he's still quite obviously the man who created Bronson and the Pusher trilogy, both of which I personally find to be more satisfying accomplishments than Drive. Only God Forgives is a strong piece of filmmaking-as-craft, and it's buoyed by truly breathtaking cinematography by Larry Smith, a sometime collaborator of Winding Refn's whose career started in a series of "not quite a full DP" projects with Stanley Kubrick. So you know he's bona fide, and his overwhelming saturation of the film in blankets of color (there are many moments in the film which consist visually of literally nothing but one shade of red and one shade of black) gives the film an incredibly compelling visual personality that you simply cannot deny.

So it's that much more frustrating that Only God Forgives ends up having no point. Of course, that's not entirely fair or accurate. It definitely has a "point" that is made clear from the title on down: violence and retribution are a devouring cycle which can only be broken by the truly self-sacrificing, and while forgiveness is the only thing that can make the world better, it is the hardest thing to imagine, let alone practice.

This translates to ninety of the most redundant minutes I have seen in a movie theater in a very long time. The plot concerns a pair of American brothers in Bangkok, mixed up in the drug trade. The elder, Billy (Tom Burke) decides one night that the cornucopia of prostitutes available in that city just isn't enough, so he insists on finding a teenage girl, whom he promptly rapes and beats to death. Her father (Kovit Wattanakul) is able to get his revenge when the corrupt police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) permits him access to the killer, though Chang thereupon chops off the avenger's right hand. Billy's younger brother, Julian (Gosling) quickly figures all of this out, but he can bring himself to kill the man who killed his brother, understanding that Billy brought it upon himself, and soon his hellacious gorgon of a mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) has arrived in Thailand to destroy all the men who had a role in her beloved older boy's death.

And once all those pieces are in place, Only God Forgives launches into a cycle of events from which it never deviates: Crystal berates Julian, he doesn't respond or even alter his expression, somebody is killed in revenge for somebody else's death, Chang chops off a hand to make a moral point, and then he sings karaoke. It is remarkable how much that includes every single event that happens after the 20-minute mark, except for one dinner where Crystal humiliates Julian in front of his favorite prostitute, Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), talking about the relative sizes of her sons' penises.

It's a telling scene, because it exists for no real reason other than to let Scott Thomas burst forth with a roar of crudely operatic dialogue, and her entire performance exists for no other purpose than to be extravagantly campy and wicked in speaking those lines. Things that only exist for one reason, and it's not even a very good reason, tend to crop up all the damn time in Only God Forgives, a movie which has one single argument and one single way of presenting that argument dramatically and visually, and it makes that presentation over and over again until after far, far too long, Gosling's character finally says "fuck it" (or rather, he doesn't, because he only says like, literally, 40 words in the movie) and puts himself in the way of all that repetitive violence.

Whatever impact the film makes, it has absolutely nothing to do with its threadbare characters, nor with its depiction of Thailand, which despite all Winding Refn's talk about his influences and his desire to evoke the culture is as generic and Othered as I can remember seeing it in recent cinema, depicting a world where the brown people are hookers or killers, and the white people are swallowed up whole by a society that cares for neither Crystal's screaming monstrosity nor Julian's heavily emasculated inability to act or communicate. Most of the impact comes entirely from the style, which has a thrilling Pop-Art sense of colliding colors in an attempt to create sensation through sheer abstract imagery, or from Cliff Martinez's somewhat unimaginative but fulfillingly driving score. Or, especially, from the much-publicised violence, which isn't quite as brutish and disgusting as the most breathless reports would have you believe - any habituΓ© of Asian horror has scene plenty of stuff far more grotesque than anything that goes on here. But it's still pretty gory and unsparing, particularly regarding its omnipresent, impressively squishy sound design, and the variety of angles from which Winding Refn shows (or, more often than I'd expected, refrains from showing) the various dismemberings and disembowelings that are scattered across the film's landscape.

Impressively committed, sure, but it's also quickly tedious and one-note, and this I cannot forgive. The film being nihilistic and unpleasant (for it is both) is one thing, but it's nihilistic and unpleasant to no purpose at all, and the only thing about any of this that flickers with any kind of life is Scott Thomas's deranged performance, which I found to be memorable and striking in all of the very worst ways. All in all, it feels angry and punshing; like the director was very mad at people who enjoyed Drive, and wanted to make them suffer - "no, this is what I meant, meaningless, brutal violence that's too numb to be either exciting or off-putting". Only God Forgives just drags and drags, sullen and mean and boring as shit. It's absolutely gorgeous; it has that and only that in its favor, and it's not remotely enough.

2/10