The new Ryan Gosling movie has to be a comedy, I think. The only alternative to laughing at it is napping through it. And given all the overwrought gut-ripping, limb-lopping and eyeball abuse that punctuate the picture's general air of slugged pretension, that would be hard. So, laughter it is.
Only God Forgives is Gosling's second collaboration with the talented Danish writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn, who appears here to have been swallowed up by his own wild style. The movie is lumbered with thudding symbolism and gaudy Oedipal flourishes, and it's so heavily drenched in red lighting that some scenes look as if they might have been shot in a tank full of cherry Jell-O. Then there's the story, which is where most of the laughs lie.
We're in Bangkok, Thailand, where two American brothers, Julian (Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke), run a kickboxing school or fight club or something. This is just a front, though – their real occupation is moving shipments of heroin and cocaine in and out of the country for their mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who handles the retail end of the family drug-dealing business back in the States. Julian is a man of…not few words, really: more like no words. (Those who thought Gosling's performance in Refn's Drive was inordinately terse may chuckle aloud at the near-catatonia of the character he plays here.) Billy, on the other hand, is a drunken scummer with a taste for 14-year-old girls. When this gets him into the last trouble he will ever have on this mortal plane, Julian comes to the attention of a top cop, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who skulks around town dispensing one-man justice with a mid-size samurai sword. (It's no use pleading for mercy from this guy, because, like, only God forgives.)
Pansringarm and Gosling are so inexpressive, you wonder if they might be facing off in some sort of unannounced deadpan competition. Despite a few tacked-on eccentricities, their characters are inscrutable. When he's not slicing up bad guys, Chang spends his downtime onstage at a karaoke club, warbling melancholy pop tunes to a room full of fellow cops. And Julian is as po-faced when tied to a chair watching a prostitute masturbate for him as he is just standing around or looking around or occasionally walking around – which is a lot of the time.
The movie perks up a bit with the arrival of the brassy Crystal, who has flown into Bangkok to deliver some of Refn's most hilariously overripe dialogue. Frustrated by a receptionist while attempting to check into her hotel, she summons the manager: "I just traveled 10,000 miles to see the corpse of my first-born son, and this bitch says I can't have my room?" She's furious that her surviving kid hasn't terminated the man who murdered his brother, but Julian isn't sure that's justified – after all, he says, Billy raped and killed a teenage girl. "Well," says Mom, "maybe he had his reasons." And when Julian introduces a beautiful young whore (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) as his girlfriend, Crystal mildly inquires, "How many cocks can you entertain in that cute cum-dumpster of yours?"
Only God Forgives has all the hallmarks of a comedy, but none of the pleasures – the director insists on playing it straight, for some reason. The movie is packed with ultra-violence, but it remains inert from start to finish. It could almost be a parody of a bad art-house movie – except that it actually is one.
Is there any film genre creakier than the old-haunted-house movie, with its perpetually dim hallways, uninviting basements and spectral clunks and mutterings? We've seen it all before, and yet the predictable frights never seem to lose their power to jolt. In The Conjuring, James Wan, who helped launch the Saw franchise and also directed the 2010 chiller Insidious, takes a new pass at this well-worn form and comes up with exactly what you'd expect. But his classicist's respect for the genre, and his patient building of tension through atmospheric long shots, freshen the familiar elements somewhat, and the movie does – for those still susceptible – deliver.
The story is as usual said to be based on actual events, in this case drawn from the files of celebrity "witchcraft and demonology consultants" Ed and Lorraine Warren. As played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, the Warrens are earnest practitioners of their dodgy craft, deeply bummed about the fact that everyone dismisses them as charlatans. They're presented to us in a manner of unquestioning reverence, as if they were the Curies forging the theory of radiation. (This view of the couple is, shall we say, hardly universal: Their most famous case, retailed in the Amityville Horror movies, was long ago exposed as a hoax.)
The movie begins with an unblushing MacGuffin – a creepy devil doll that Ed keeps at his Connecticut home, in a locked room filled with other evil memorabilia. Then it's off to Rhode Island, where we see the requisite unsuspecting family – Roger and Carolyn Perrone (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters – moving into a big new house. It should be some kind of tip-off when the family dog refuses to enter the place, but the Perrones are naturally oblivious. Soon enough, though, unseen bedroom demons are yanking on their legs at night, hallway doors are squeaking open on their own, and a wallboard is pried out to reveal a stairway down into the entirely unsurprising pitch-black basement.
After much otherworldly annoyance, the Warrens are called in, Lorraine with her powers of clairvoyance ("Something awful happened here"), Ed with his little exorcism kit, fully stocked with crucifixes, holy water and all the trimmings. The rest of the movie details their battle to rid the house of whatever it is that's haunting it. This is kind of fun, and Wan works up some memorable images – a ghostly dead girl floating past a dock underwater, a sheet blown off a clothesline up into the air, where it briefly takes on a demonic shape. The movie deflates a bit when the demons have to be revealed, but like just about everything else on display here, that's not unexpected either.