Editor’s Note: This review appeared as part of our Cannes 2013 coverage. Seeing as Only God Forgives is making its way into theaters in the U.S. this week, we are republishing it for your reading pleasure.
Arguably the most anticipated film of this year’s Cannes Film Festival is one that on the face of it, though In Competition, has little chance of scooping the Palme D’Or by virtue of subject matter alone. Only God Forgives, the latest film from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, follows the filmmaker’s hugely popular 2011 Cannes In Competition entry Drive (which scooped Refn the Best Director award), yet is a baffling follow-up that evoked strongly divided responses at this morning’s jam-packed press screening.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) is an American living in Bangkok, Thailand, exiled from the States after committing a heinous act of violence. His boxing club is a merely a guise for a drug trade, part of a criminal organisation fronted by his hot-headed mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). When Julian’s brother Billy (Tom Burke) winds up dead after brutally murdering a prostitute, Crystal demands that Julian find the killer and bring her his head. In addition to this, Julian will have to contend with Chang (Vithaya Pansingarm), a doggedly determined, retired police officer who aims to bring about balance to Bangkok’s blood-soaked streets, appropriately enough, by spilling some more.
Easily the most vocally-received film of the festival so far, Refn’s latest was met with colossal boos and jeers at its world premiere (though remember, so was The Tree of Life), and even its defenders will likely agree that it confounds the expectations set by the director’s last film. This isn’t to say that Only God Forgives should merely be Drive redux, but what Refn has served up here is an almost entirely superficial and wholly obtuse film that clearly aims to provoke its audience to infuration.
At a mere 90 minutes in length (and closer to 80 minus credits), the first sign of trouble is that Refn’s deliberate, methodical style is more pronounced than ever; numerous scenes feature Gosling trawling casually through dark, neon-red hallways, and if you thought Drive had too much pensive staring into the distance, it is essentially taken to the level of self-parody here. Of course, on the plus side, the film looks lovely – Larry Smith’s lensing evokes Bangkok’s seedy, seductive quality, while also giving the mystical narrative a suitably surreal sheen.
What truly puzzles, especially early on, is that Refn, a director known for his inventive depictions of graphic violence, shies away from much of the action; Billy dies off-screen despite our being shown everything leading up to this, and the hype from Gosling himself that it’s “gorier than Drive” seems to be exactly that – hyperbolic – save for one gruesome scene in which a man has his chest cavity sliced open, revealing his snapped ribcage poking out. Similarly, Refn keeps us at a distance from sexual content; when a prostitute masturbates in front of Julian, it is so tastefully shot that it could almost be aired before the television watershed. If there is one thing I wasn’t expecting to say about Only God Forgives, “it needs more sleaze” surely is it.
The director’s insistent style seems largely unfocused, indulging in far too many wordless slow-motion sequences that pad the film out to its already scant run-time (played at regular speed, the film would run shorter than many a Zack Snyder flick). Even the popular and revered Gosling can’t do much with the material, floating through the film like a disinterested phantom, delivering one of the more phoned-in performances of his career (though even Daniel Day-Lewis would struggle to do much with this material). As such, several scenes offer only stylistic delights, namely the aforementioned visuals and Cliff Martinez’s moodily evocative, haunting score.
Fleeting in and out of the film and proving a sheer delight every time she appears, meanwhile, is Kristin Scott Thomas, playing Julian’s high-strung, distressed mother with the sort of rigour and often hilarious outrageousness rarely seen from the actress. Kitted out with blonde hair and tacky leopard print clothing, she’s nevertheless the only character with any real depth; her pain at her first son’s death is evident, and the longer the film goes, the more desperate for a saviour from the threat of death she becomes. Vithaya Pansingarm, meanwhile, lurches around like a creepy spectre of judgement, and though his philosophy appears initially interesting, he too is mostly an empty shell as a result of the director’s script.
When it’s all said and done, Only God Forgives unfolds in a manner so uncaring of its own story that it manages to make Drive seem nuanced and multi-faceted by comparison. As the brief run-time drains away, Refn placates his own peculiar goal – either one intended to enrage audiences, or one born out of genuine delusion – ahead of making an entertaining and coherent film. Though the pic will be sold on its soaring lead star, his contributions here are scarely memorable – with the exception of a brilliantly-scored fight scene against Chang – and it’s easy to believe that his scenes could have been filmed inside of about a week (especially given the abundance of slow motion).
Simply, without a brand name like Refn’s at the helm, there’s no way this project would be In Competition at Cannes, nor would it have attracted its talented stars, nor even found its way out of your local bargain bin. A sure regression from the director’s prior work, Only God Forgives is a hugely disappointing, hollow shell of a movie.
The Upside: From a stylistic perspective, the film sizzles; cinematography, sound design and score are superb, and Kristin Scott Thomas delivers a stellar supporting performance.
The Downside: Refn slits his own throat by over-indulging his signature minimalism, and failing to come up with a narrative that rises above rote thriller fare. Gosling’s presence also feels oddly muted here.
On the Side: Refn’s 2003 film Fear X, which many have already compared Only God Forgives to, ended up bankrupting his production company.