Nicolas Winding Refn has a powerful feel for tone and a good pictorial eye. I appreciate the way he tries to use elements of form and style to provide more evocative experiences - e.g., the way he intimates eyeline matches and shot-reverse shots in non-contiguous spaces. He's a guy with a sharp and insistent sense of how he wants to get a story across through formal elements that aren't totally conventionalized, and it doesn't all amount to serving the narrative so much as it does creating and sustaining a tonal structure. Indirectly or directly he owes a clear debt to the 1980s axis of Cimino-Mann-Friedkin, as well as the rise of Tarantinoism in the following decade. It's the fascination with (slightly) older media forms - title card fonts, killer throwaway shots, just the right ambient music - that aligns him with Tarantino in my mind. It's as if he studied, valiantly, the entire back catalog of sleek and not-so-sleek genre product in the video store circa 1996.
Like James Wan with The Conjuring, Winding Refn's approach in Only God Forgives is deeply satisfying on some level because it's a pop/genre film that trusts its audience to have an aesthetic experience that doesn't boil down to breathless A-to-B-to-C narration, pompously confused political "THEMES (!!!)," and quirky sarcasm. (The Nolan-Whedon death grip on mass-market genre cinema is 100% stultifying, in my view. I'd rather just sit and watch American Ninja II a dozen times in a row, frankly.) Nevertheless, this doesn't mean that Wan or NWR just get a free pass. I also think these two directors share a sense of unfulfilled potential. Their work, even when good, often feels shallow.
Now it's worth pausing for a second to parse out what that might mean. In many cases, people use the word "shallow" (or a synonym) to refer to a lack or failure of three-dimensional characterization or overt thematization. But if these elements are missing, I'm not bothered by their absence per se. This isn't the precise meaning of "shallowness" that concerns me. A lot of great cinema, and art in general, features characters who lack depth and are deliberately not drawn to suggest interiority or believable motivation. I fully and absolutely believe that work that limns the superficial can in fact be great and, well, "deep." To varying degrees, I feel about The Conjuring and Only God Forgives, like Drive, Bronson, Pusher, Saw, even Insidious (which I adore), that these don't trust their instincts enough. They follow their focus enough to create beautiful, stylized, lovingly textured objects but really only seem to have a self-belief in their own effects and not always in what these effects might achieve as full-blown works of art ... even if "low" art ... even if self-conscious pastiche high-low art.
(Valhalla Rising, by the way, I pretty much exempt from these criticisms. For me it's a minor masterpiece and by far NWR's best work that I've seen, one that achieves depth through its evocative play with surfaces and unknowns. Contra dominant tendencies, it doesn't try to explain everything.)
Of course this ignores other important facets of the work. Plenty to be said about Only God Forgives as a weird kind of orientalist text. These are other things worth addressing ...