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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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INTERVIEWER
Do you think this anxiety of yours has something to do with being a woman? Do you have to work harder than a male writer, just to create work that isn’t dismissed as being “for women”? Is there a difference between male and female writing?

FERRANTE
I’ll answer with my own story. As a girl—twelve, thirteen years old—I was absolutely certain that a good book had to have a man as its hero, and that depressed me. That phase ended after a couple of years. At fifteen I began to write stories about brave girls who were in serious trouble. But the idea remained—indeed, it grew stronger—that the greatest narrators were men and that one had to learn to narrate like them. I devoured books at that age, and there’s no getting around it, my models were masculine. So even when I wrote stories about girls, I wanted to give the heroine a wealth of experiences, a freedom, a determination that I tried to imitate from the great novels written by men. I didn’t want to write like Madame de La Fayette or Jane Austen or the Brontës—at the time I knew very little about contemporary literature—but like Defoe or Fielding or Flaubert or Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky or even Hugo. While the models offered by women novelists were few and seemed to me for the most part thin, those of male novelists were numerous and almost always dazzling. That phase lasted a long time, until I was in my early twenties, and it left profound effects.
~ Elena Ferrante, Paris Review Art Of Fiction No. 228

“The evening’s curious vanity and irrelevance stay with me, if only because those qualities characterize so many of Hollywood’s best intentions. Social problems present themselves to many of these people in terms of a scenario, in which, once certain key scenes are licked (the confrontation on the courthouse steps, the revelation that the opposition leader has an anti-Semitic past, the presentation of the bill of participants to the President, a Henry Fonda cameo), the plot will proceed inexorably to an upbeat fade. Marlon Brando does not, in a well-plotted motion picture, picket San Quentin in vain: what we are talking about here is faith in a dramatic convention. Things “happen” in motion pictures. There is always a resolution, always a strong cause-effect dramatic line, and to perceive the world in those terms is to assume an ending for every social scenario… If the poor people march on Washington and camp out, there to receive bundles of clothes gathered on the Fox lot by Barbra Streisand, then some good must come of it (the script here has a great many dramatic staples, not the least of them in a sentimental notion of Washington as an open forum, cf. Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington), and doubts have no place in the story.”
~ Joan Didion On Hw’d In 1970

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