Cannes Film Review: ‘Only God Forgives’
The wallpaper emotes more than Ryan Gosling does in “Only God Forgives,” an exercise in supreme style and minimal substance from “Drive” director Nicolas Winding Refn. In retrospect, the controlled catatonia of Gosling’s previous perfs is nothing compared to the balled fist he plays here, a cipher easily upstaged by Kristin Scott Thomas’ lip-smacking turn as a vindictive she-wolf who travels to Bangkok seeking atonement for the death of her favorite son. As hyper-aggressive revenge fantasies go, it’s curious to see one so devoid of feeling, a venality even “Drive” fans likely won’t be inclined to forgive.
In the Cannes press notes, Refn reveals, “The original concept for the film was to make a movie about a man who wants to fight God,” which could explain the hellish red glow of the neon underworld that Julian (Gosling) inhabits. Together with older brother Billy (Tom Burke), he runs a crooked Bangkok boxing club — an archetypal den of sin borrowed from “The Set-Up” and its film-noir ilk, where the fights are rigged and the whole operation serves as a front for more serious crime.
Twisted madonna readings aside, there’s little to link Julian’s struggle to traditional Christian belief, suggesting that the deity at whom Refn and his characters shake their fists is likely of a more Greek temperament. That interpretation fits better with the siblings’ Oedipal-inflected rivalry and the generally fickle way in which the all-powerful local police chief, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), seems to make the rules up as he goes along.
The trouble starts when Billy goes out looking for an underage hooker not only to defile, but to beat beyond recognition. Discovering the corpse, Chang orders the girl’s father to even the score (the only thing to ameliorate the ensuing carnage is the fact that the red-lit room masks the blood). As is so often the case when it comes to violent payback, the gesture merely serves to escalate the situation, and Julian is technically at a disadvantage, considering Chang represents the law, specifically the law of lex talionis, which he enforces by sword, chopstick or whatever sharp implement happens to be at hand in Refn’s characteristically brutal style.
Incensed by her son’s murder, Crystal (Scott Thomas) checks into her Bangkok hotel looking like a bleached-and-bronzed Donatella Versace, commanding instant authority as she berates the establishment’s trembling manager. From the moment she arrives onscreen, the actress flirts with her character’s larger-than-life camp persona, presenting herself as a rival god willing to clash thunderbolts with any takers. Rather than doing the dirty work herself, however, she commands Julian to carry out her revenge.
Like exploitation enthusiast Quentin Tarantino, Refn is that rare lover of bad movies who also has the chops to elevate grindhouse material to the stature of art — a welcome talent in cases where schlock-drawn directors’ ideas are rich enough to transcend genre (for Refn, “Bronson” came awfully close a few years back). Certainly, there’s enough here to fuel a lifetime of therapy sessions, as Refn extends his recent tendency of using cinema to wrestle his demons onscreen. The trouble is, he’s in such expert command of technique (reteaming with “Bronson” d.p. Larry Smith and “Drive” composer Cliff Martinez) that few will see beyond the surface.