Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” was arguably the most contentious film at last month’s Cannes Film Festival, prompting a broad spread of reactions ranging from outrage in the moral-police quarter to disappointment from genre-friendly “Drive” fans to the odd rave review. But it certainly left the festival slightly worse for wear, and when it came to the awards, no one even considered the possibility of it winning anything from Steven Spielberg’s jury.
Well, it turns out the Sydney Film Festival is a very different animal. Australia’s largest film festival wrapped last night with an awards ceremony where jury president Hugo Weaving handed the top prize to “Only God Forgives” — though it was by no means unanimous. The five-person jury took more than six hours to reach the decision, and Weaving admitted that not everyone was a fan of the ultra-violent thriller, which stars Ryan Gosling as an ice-cool drug trafficker in Thailand and Kristin Scott Thomas as his domineering mother.
“After 10 days of captivating and diverse film viewing and passionate conversations, the jury arrived at a majority decision,” stated Weaving, the British-Australian star of the “Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogies. “In the true spirit of the competition criteria, we award a visually mesmerizing and disturbing film, which polarized our opinions.”
Among the 11 films it beat were far more universally acclaimed festival hits, including two unique documentary sensations: Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” and Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing.” Berlinale Golden Bear winner “Child’s Pose” was also in the mix, as well as Cannes Competition titles “Borgman” and “Grigris.” “Wadjda,” a crowd-pleasing childhood tale that is also the first female-directed film to emerge from Saudi Arabia, has been an audience favorite on the festival circuit, while the lone local entry in the lineup, Laos-set coming-of-age story “The Rocket” won multiple awards at both Berlin and Tribeca.
Berlinale Audience Award winner “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” Scottish Cannes Critics’ Week selection”For Those in Peril” and German hit “Oh Boy” (a likely Oscar submission) rounded out the Competition shortlist; the festival claimed they were seeking to rewarded films with “emotional power and resonance, [that] are audacious, cutting-edge, courageous, and go beyond the usual treatment of the subject matter.”
Most of the selections might have seemed likelier winners of the festival’s top award than “Only God Forgives.” Refn could be forgiven for sounding a little surprised when accepting the $60,000 cash prize, stating, “I am very honored and extremely excited to have received this honorable award from a country that, in my opinion, has one of the great film histories of the world.” The Sydney fest has been good to Refn: he also won their inaugural award in 2008, with “Bronson.”
The festival has a history of throwing curveballs with its top prize: last year, Yorgos Lanthimos’s chilly, not-entirely-loved “Alps” beat such critical darlings as “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Tabu.” Still, this year’s outcome is pretty remarkable even by their standards: six hours to decide one award is a long, long time, so I imagine jury deliberations must have been pretty heated.
In the grand scheme of things, of course, the Sydney honor is a relatively small one; still, after its rocky reception at Cannes, “Only God Forgives” (and The Weinstein Company) is surely grateful for any additional prestige it can get. It’ll be interesting to see how the film’s reputation settles from here on out; it wouldn’t be the first Cannes controversy magnet to rally with critics after an initial backlash.