Only God forgives and even He will be hard pressed to give the latest from Nicolas Winding Refn a pass. Those who discovered the Danish director following the crossover success of Drive are likely to be disappointed as well. Only God Forgives shares the previous film’s star Ryan Gosling and a strong sense of style, but it doesn’t have the love story or noirish plot to give it a backbone. The result is a garish, unpleasant jellyfish of a film lacking even a sting.
With another blank non-performance perfect for one of Kuleshov’s film experiments, Ryan Gosling drifts through Bangkok as Julian. When his older brother Billy is killed in retribution for senselessly murdering a young prostitute, Julian’s drug-pushing mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) shows up expecting him to take revenge. On the other side of the law is Chang, a stoic Thai cop who metes out his own notions of justice with the sharp edge of a sword. Cue showdown music.
On the bright side, Only God Forgives at least looks great. Substituting Drive‘s nighttime LA for nighttime Bangkok, it’s all hot reds and cool blues lifted from one of David Lynch’s sensual dreamscapes but lacking the surrealism. It’s also lacking Lynch’s sense of mystery and magic.
Classy Kristin Scott Thomas seems to be enjoying herself and she makes the most of it getting down and dirty as a Freudian nightmare of a mother, but the character is neither as shocking or as funny as Refn thinks she is. There’s a scene where she crudely talks about the relative penis sizes of her two sons over dinner. Jaws are meant to drop open, and this scene got the biggest reaction from the audience, but it’s all so calculated it doesn’t have the punch it’s so obviously meant to. It’s not Scott Thomas’ fault. It’s Refn whose characters aren’t people. They’re stylistic flourishes posing as archetypes. With less Gosling and more Scott Thomas vs. Vithaya Pansringarm’s sword-wielding, Karaoke obsessed Thai supercop (part monk and part Dirty Harry), Only God Forgives might have at least brought entertainment value. Instead, it’s mostly just a lurid wallow with Scott Thomas’ pig of a mother lording it over Gosling’s runt of the litter.
There’s a scene in Refn’s Bronson where a character smears his own shit all over himself and all over the walls of his cell. I kept thinking of that as Only God Forgives did the same thing to the movie screen and the audience at the Grand Theatre Lumiere here at Cannes. To be fair, the film was probably met with a few more cheers than boos among the people I saw it with. I think those who were turned on by Refn’s pre-Drive work are the most likely to be enthusiastic.