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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Tsangari: With my next film, White Knuckles, it comes with a budget — it’s going to be a huge new world for me. As always when I enter into a new thing, don’t you wonder how it’s going to be and how much of yourself you are going to have to sacrifice? The ballet of all of this. I’m already imaging the choreography — not of the camera, but the choreography of actually bringing it to life. It is as fascinating as the shooting itself. I find the producing as exciting as the directing. The one informs the other. There is this producer-director hat that I constantly wear. I’ve been thinking about these early auteurs, like Howard Hawks and John Ford and Preston Sturges—all of these guys basically were hired by the studio, and I doubt they had final cut, and somehow they had films that now we can say they had their signatures.  There are different ways of being creative within the parameters and limitations of production. The only thing you cannot negotiate is stupidity.
Filmmaker: And unfortunately, there is an abundance of that in the world.
Tsangari: This is the only big risk: stupidity. Everything else is completely worked out in the end.
~ Chevalier‘s Rachel Athina Tsangari

“The middle-range movies that I was doing have largely either stopped being made, or they’ve moved to television, now that television is a go-to medium for directors who can’t get work in theatricals, because there are so few theatricals being made. But also with the new miniseries concept, you can tell a long story in detail without having to cram it all into 90 minutes. You don’t have to cut the characters and take out the secondary people. You can actually put them all on a big canvas. And it is a big canvas, because people have bigger screens now, so there’s no aesthetic difference between the way you shoot a movie and the way you shoot a TV show.

“Which is all for the good. But what’s happened in the interim is that theatrical movies being a spectacle business are now either giant blockbuster movies that run three hours—even superhero movies run three hours, they used to run like 58 minutes!—and the others, which are dysfunctional family independent movies or the slob comedy or the kiddie movie, and those are all low-budget. So the middle ground of movies that were about things, they’re just gone. Or else they’re on HBO. Like the Bryan Cranston LBJ movie, which years ago would’ve been made for theaters.

“You’ve got people like Paul Schrader and Walter Hill who can’t get their movies theatrically distributed because there’s no market for it. So they end up going to VOD, and VOD is a model from which no one makes any money, because most of the time, as soon as they get on the site, they’re pirated. So the whole model of the system right now is completely broken. And whether or not anybody’s going to try to fix, or if it even can be fixed, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not the same business that I got into in the ’70s.”
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