Nicolas Winding Refn loves red: the crimson-soaked bars of Copenhagen's underworld in Pusher II, the neon-saturated Los Angeles of Drive, the hallucinatory landscapes of Valhalla Rising. The director's new Only God Forgives maintains that affection, along with one for elliptical storytelling, with admirable rigor. But its ease with prolonged carnage is ultimately misguided.
In this campily Oedipal drama, Ryan Gosling's Julian Thompson runs a muay Thai training gym in Bangkok but reserves his passion 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 is understandably reluctant to kill righteous avenger Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Behind Julian's back, however, Crystal organizes reprisal.
Cinematographer Larry Smith's camera crawls unnervingly and then moves with lightning speed, showing us savage eye slittings in grindhouse close-up, samurai sword wieldings, and a nightmarish whorehouse where the hallways glow dark crimson. These individual shots seem designed as events in themselves, but they don't acquire cumulative rhythm. Refn's sudden jumps in location or omissions of narrative connective tissue are consistent but not intriguing. He has framed Only God Forgives with ostentatious discipline, but the movie's transgressive urges get lost in an indiscriminate barrage of colors.