By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Cannes Competition Review: Only God Forgives

Conked out on Quaaludes and projecting colors at the screen in lieu of a legitimate narrative, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives is nothing like the sensation that was Drive—and while it’s not fair to expect a sequel of that film, audiences anticipating Refn’s latest as something similarly electrifying (as online clips have hinted) are in for a severe disappointment. Embracing style over substance (often Refn’s go-to, emphasized here to a fault), the Ryan Gosling gong-show the film could have been is instead tedious; filled with thousand-yard stares, macho-man gesturing, and comatose blocking.

If there is a plot to Only God Forgives, it is essentially the nastiest highlights of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” and Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” wrapped around a revenge dance tête-à-tête, an equation that could have been more than the gratuitous, hyper-violent indulgence on show. Nevertheless: when Julian’s brother is killed, a chain reaction of subsequent slayings begins with the ruthless Chang, an ex-cop known as the Angel of Vengeance (Vithaya Pansringarm). In the middle of this is Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who flies to Bangkok to claim the body of her dead son and coerce Julian (Gosling) into doing something about the situation.

One of the film’s more lamentable tragedies is the pacing, and the film’s positively glacial speed is due to the way Refn’s characters walk, talk and stalk. These characters are androids on the fritz; their movement jerky and slow as if everyone wore ankle weights to train for the shoot and forgot to take them off. Ryan Gosling’s Julian is particularly ridiculous, his deer-in-headlights character standing in doorways and looking blankly down hallways with little to do and nothing to say (Gosling has fewer than 20 lines). Post-Drive, Julian is approaching a sort of Gosling parody, and it’s depressing to think Only God Forgives may retroactively spoil memories of The Driver.

Composer Cliff Martinez, back with Refn after his head-bobbing Drive contribution, does a suitable job instilling the film with a soundtrack that features the requisite ambience and downbeat thumpers you’d predict. And while there’s no stand-out track here like Kavinsky’s “Nightcall,”  there are some karaoke performances by Chang that may prove memorable. For better or for worse, though, the music is not much of a factor here, despite that being one of Drive’s strongest selling points.

There are two distinctly excellent aspects to Only God Forgives, but neither is given the prominence needed to propel the film to greatness. The first is Kristin Scott Thomas, here uncensored and spewing just the filthiest things Refn could write; the other is Refn’s mise-en-scène, his backdrops consistently artistic and screensaver cool (a dragon-inspired lattice lit with crimson is one of the film’s more striking images). Likely due to his claimed color-blindness, Refn and cinematographer Larry Smith (Eyes Wide Shut) imbue the film with a blue-and-red contrast palette that feels like old school 3D, setting the stage nicely with a slick and neon chill. (But seriously, can’t someone turn on a light or something?)

But the consistent visual effectiveness of Refn’s backgrounds is part of the reason why Only God Forgives is so disappointing: the action doesn’t match the drapes. Scott Thomas’ dialogue is somehow far more outrageous than the actual violence, which is relatively tame and one of the film’s more overt failures. If these characters weren’t reduced to abstract forms of emotion, it’d be another thing; as it stands, it’s hard to be shocked by fake violence enacted upon robotic human shells. Scott Thomas aside (her role is a uniquely terrific one), the performances here are devoid of anything human; rather, they are pawns moving in slow motion to emphasize the film’s general expressionism (working, perhaps, for fans of Refn’s earlier filmography). Sure, people in this film bleed and bleed—Refn drops a bomb on the cast—but it’s not because it’s a movie that we know the violence isn’t real. It’s not real because we aren’t given anything other than lifeless characters in an immobile stage play—a juvenile reading of Greek tragedy—for the damage to be dealt effectively.

2 Responses to “Cannes Competition Review: Only God Forgives”

  1. Libby says:

    This was a good read. I now know I don’t want to see this movie. Thanks, Jake.

  2. prunktanner says:

    Refn, always at the bleeding edge !

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
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