CANNES – If nothing else — and like many Cannes folk who entered this morning’s screening bleary-eyed, and left it black-eyed, I’m still working out just how much else it is — “Only God Forgives” may be the single reddest film to grace our screens since “Moulin Rouge!.” Just about the only scenes in which blood isn’t virtually seeping from the walls in Nicolas Winding Refn’s sleek, stunted, undeniably startling revenge thriller are those in which it’s quite literally splashing them.
Those who tagged “Drive” with the “ultra-violent” label would be well advised to give “Only God Forgives” a wide berth; Refn has followed the relative romance of that gorgeous thriller with a film in which human bodies — even ones as belovedly immaculate as Ryan Gosling’s — are little more than crash test dummies, built to be broken, repeatedly and dispassionately. This isn’t a film about anything that’s on the screen — which is just as well, since apart from the surfeit of blades gliding serenely through human flesh, only faintly wrinkling the thousand-yard stares of the penetrated, there’s barely anything to speak of going on in Refn’s skinny, self-penned script. Rather, “Only God Forgives” is entirely about its own physical violations, and how deliberately it can design these extremities.
As the bodies pile up in increasingly grisly — and not terribly inventive — fashion, Refn dispenses with such niceties as tension, momentum or palpable human stakes. By the end, characters are passively serving themselves up for the slaughter, the endgame of a film that has the good grace not to appear very excited by its own rampant nihilism. “Only God Forgives” is dull, but it’s also oddly transfixing, and not just in the sheer splendor of its craft.
Resembling “Valhalla Rising” significantly more than “Drive” in the director’s canon, there’s a zonked, even balletic, quality to its flattened, dehumanized narrative of carnage that’s clearly what Refn was going for: as characters move like molasses across the screen, speaking little and scarcely conveying more, our gaze slows with them. There’s been some talk about the influence of brutal Asian pulp stylists (Kim Jee-Woon came to mind at several points) on this Bangkok-set film, but it could just as easily be likened to Wong Kar-Wai attempting a video nasty. (The end credits, on the other hand, dedicate the film to less immediately obvious source of inspiration: current Cannes comeback vet Alejandro Jodorowsky.)
Even amid my appreciation for its woozy, sculpted grossness, however, I can’t help wishing “Only God Forgives” was doing a little more, and I mean purely on the level of nuts-and-bolts storytelling, not grander emotional or thematic resonance. “Drive,” with its preponderance of hotly-styled posturing, wasn’t exactly Sartre either, but there was some basic yarn there; characters in the new film, by contrast, seem to walk around the plot whenever the option is given them.
This is what we’re given. Gosling plays Julian, a cool customer (as if you needed to ask) who runs a Thai boxing club with his more volatile brother Billy (Tom Burke). If that seems an odd venture, it’s actually a front for an Eastern outpost of a major drug-running circle run by their mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), which only makes a little more sense. When Billy rapes and murders a teenage prostitute, and is murdered in turn for this crime, Julian initially opts out of retaliation: Billy had it coming, after all, and revenge is a dirty business that might soil one of his impeccably fitted T-shirts. (I’m projecting here, but Gosling’s studiedly opaque performance invites any number of readings.)
Crystal, of course, is having none of it: a seething emasculator in Real Housewives chic, she’s on the first plane to Thailand to mourn her favorite son — she makes no bones about this — and berate the other one for his cowardice. Bearing down on Julian at the same time is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a retired policeman on the warpath against the Bangkok underworld for reasons as enigmatic as Julian’s own motivations. Indeed, “enigmatic” seems to have been used as a placeholder term throughout the script: what matters (or doesn’t) to Refn is that characters do things he can pore over in his catalogue of violence.
One of the film’s most interesting scenes — not so much narratively as in the way it beats down audience expectations accumulated over decades of the star system — finds Julian challenging Chang to a boxing duel, only to put up not much fight himself as Chang swiftly beats him to steak tartare, leaving his face a ghoulish mask of bruising for the rest of the film. It could be that Chang is simply that indomitable, though Julian — having entered the fight in a natty three-piece suit — appears to give himself no chance to begin with. Is this simple defeat, a death wish, or a token gesture at revenge made to please his mother, watching stonily from the sidelines? If Refn knows, he has little interest in telling us; of more concern to him is the perverse beauty of watching Ryan Gosling getting his ass most bloodily kicked.
“Drive” may have made Gosling a star, cinematically salivating over his every head turn, but “Only God Forgives” is far less kind to him: if he’s not getting physically pummeled, he’s taking a verbal beating from Kristin Scott Thomas, who steals the film with queenly entitlement in her few scenes. Correctly surmising that the best way to counter the potentially star-freezing polish of Refn’s aesthetic is to vamp it up with discordant relish, her Crystal is both the film’s most poisonous presence and its most vital life force, the kind of walking nightmare who, upon learning that her late son murdered a child, responds cuttingly, “I’m sure he had his reasons.”
Refn seems barely interested in his script’s allusions (they barely count as innuendo) to mother-son sexual relations; Scott Thomas, on the other hand, revels in them, musing on the size of his cock over dinner with flirtatious viciousness. It’s a grand, gleeful performance in a film that scarcely demands it; sneaking the film itself past the Academy’s faint-hearted acting branch will be a tough task, but the campaign for a Best Supporting Actress nomination (with the chance to hear the words “cum dumpster” on national television) begins now.
“Only God Forgives” is equally well-served — albeit in a manner rather more compliant with Refn’s vision — by cinematographer Larry Smith, who hasn’t had this kind of showcase for his abilities since “Eyes Wide Shut.” As in that Kubrick marvel, his precise lighting schemes locate texture and contrast even in near-total darkness. “Drive” composer Cliff Martinez, meanwhile, contributes an electronic score of magnificently atonal sonic animosity, less bar-friendly than his ubiquitous “Drive” soundtrack, but even more brooding.
“Only God Forgives” could hardly look or sound more luscious, then — which is either a problem, if you think a film that dwells this extensively on the least pleasant reaches of human behavior has an obligation not to ornamentalize them, or a virtue, if you simply buy the film as the inhuman cartoon that Refn and cast do. I can accept the latter, but wish the cartoon was a bit more, well, animated. For a film in which the first word of dialogue uttered by Gosling on screen is the simple directive “go,” “Only God Forgives” ultimately stagnates in its exquisite pools of red.