REVIEW ROUND-UP: Cannes Puts the Smack Down on ‘Only God Forgives’

Only God ForgivesTwo years back, Nicolas Winding Refn really smacked it down hard at Cannes with Drive. That astonishment having fermented over time, Only God Forgives ended up smacking down, too, but apparently on its face.

@DavidPoland: Only God Forgives really refn goes for the gut.
@phillipstribune: confirms DRIVE dir. N.W. Refn’s status as world’s most sadistic adolescent art director. Truly empty film.
@guylodge: I would definitely have sex with ONLY GOD FORGIVES, though I’d feel bad about it in the morning and call DRIVE to weepily confess.
@JustinCChang: ONLY GOD FORGIVES. And even that’s being generous, really. Worthless.
@daveyjenkins: Hahahahahahahahaha. That was a silly movie.

The course of true love never did run smooth, and our ongoing perverse relationship with Refn’s films may take a slight bump with Only God Forgives. A trailer hit last month, seeming to have all the essential properties that made Drive such a smooth operator. The revenge story about a Thai boxing ring owner in Bangkok seems to be playing more on the over-the-top side of things, which is both what we wanted the director to do, but also possibly a step down from his more focused prior work.

Only God ForgivesIn case you’re optimistic the mixed critical response is only light dissatisfaction, Dave Calhoun of TimeOut London really brings the hammer down on Refn’s film, feeling there’s little substance to this stylistic display.

Very little happens beyond these explosions of violence, which leaves us to wade through a great deal of slo-mo and characters forever staring into the middle distance. We learn barely anything about them, and it’s Gosling who comes out the worst. He floats moodily through the film. When Scott Thomas describes him ‘as a very dangerous boy’, all we see is a buff male model readied for a risky fashion shoot. In one of the film’s few conversations, Scott Thomas’s lines and delivery sound computer-generated. Style over substance doesn’t really tell the half of it: you can bathe a corpse in groovy light and dress it in an expensive suit, but in the end that rotting smell just won’t go away.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian has a most wildly contrasting opinion, falling in sick love with the orgy of violence and beauty Refn puts on display.

The film exerts an eerie and woozy grip from the outset, with many nightmarish scenes of people walking down long, claustrophobic corridors, somehow always pulsing with dark red and green light, like the subway in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible or the tenement corridor in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. There are some deeply disturbing karaoke club scenes, with crooning songs about unrequited love. (Winding Refn may also have taken something from the British film-maker Thomas Clay, and his Bangkok-set film Soi Cowboy.) Larry Smith’s cinematography, Beth Mickle’s production design, and the art direction by Russell Barnes and Witoon Suanyai are staggeringly good.

Only God ForgivesSomewhere in the middle probably lies some layer of sanity, and Jessica Kiang at The Playlist does well to note possibly the film’s greatest asset: Kristin Scott Thomas.

Our overall disappointment aside, there are a lot of good elements. Kristen Scott Thomas, as advertised in the sneak preview, is wonderful as the snarling, acid anti-mother, and every one of her scenes crackles with the sheer electricity of her venality and corruption. But everything about her, from her image-upending look to her already-famous withering, foulmouthed language, to the way she can twitch on Julian’s line by offering him motherhood like a cookie, is so enlivening that we really miss her when she’s gone, and there’s not actually a huge amount of her (the dinner scene shown as a preview is probably her biggest moment).

Wrapping things up with Mark Adams of Screen Daily, the parallels to Drive seep through and evoke Only God Forgives as a different, though tonally similar, animal.

If Refn’s Drive reveled in its sense of pace and purpose, then his new film embraces a slower – but equally graceful – style, with the camera tracking artfully through ornately decorated darkened rooms or over wet, glistening, Bangkok streets. Ryan Gosling is – as he was in Drive – an enigmatic but elegant figure, and seems to shimmer through the film, while Kristin Scott Thomas has a fine old time as the vampish mother, and while her waspish line delivery is perfect for the role she is oddly incongruous as a brittle blonde.

So I would not expect Spielberg’s jury to bite very hard on this one. It looks to be a tense, silly popcorn thriller, territory Refn is well versed in, and should find champions for being just that.

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