“Only God Forgives” was unveiled Wednesday morning to the most divisive response at the Cannes festival thus far, and even with the smattering of boos and walkouts we’d hazard a guess that Nicolas Winding Refn couldn’t be more delighted by the reception. As empty, soulless, frenziedly art-directed viewing experiences go, “Only God Forgives” is one of the better examples. At the press conference following the screening, the Danish filmmaker expounded on his ultra-violent, hyper-stylized follow-up to “Drive,” which features dismemberments, torture, eye gouging, Kristin Scott Thomas as a trashy, bestial, peroxide-wigged mother who calls her son’s female companion a “cum dumpster” and Gosling as a vaguely sketched mean machine operating in a seedy Thai underworld who makes the “Driver” look like a motormouth.
Winding Refn happily admitted to approaching filmmaking “like a pornographer: it’s about what arouses me. Certain things turn me on more than other stuff and I can’t suppress that… I have a fetish for violent emotions and images.”
When asked about “Only God Forgives”' unforgiving violence, which did prompt a fair number of walkouts (in particular a scene in which a lethal Bangkok cop tortures a man for information by inserting spikes into his hands, legs and elsewhere), Winding Refn said: “Art is an act of violence. It is about penetration, about speaking to our subconscious and our moods at different levels.” He added that he doesn’t consider himself a “very violent” person and can’t explain his interest in fetishizing violent emotions and images, “but I do believe it’s a way to exorcise various things.”
Ryan Gosling, who speaks even less in “Only God Forgives” than he did in “Drive,” couldn’t make it to Cannes, as he’s mid-shoot on his directorial debut,“How To Catch A Monster.” Thierry Fremaux read out the following letter from the actor: “Hi all. Can’t believe I’m not in Cannes. I was hoping to come but I’m on week three shooting my film in Detroit. Miss you all. Nicolas, my friend, we really are the same persons in different dimensions. I’m sending you good vibrations. I’m with you all today, Nic, Kristin, Vithaya and the whole team. Go with god.”
On what he was aiming for with Gosling’s unemotive, monosyllabic character, Winding Refn offered the following explanation: “The idea of Julian’s character was a man who was on some sort of journey but did not know what he is going towards. We spoke about the character of the sleepwalker, destined to move, who does not know where he is going. He is bound and chained to his mother’s womb.”
While Winding Refn said of the British actress, “She has no problem turning on the bitch switch,” Scott Thomas jokingly declared that she felt the film was getting “more and more despicable” as the shoot progressed. But she also admitted relishing her vile, foul-mouthed matriarch for being so far removed from the brittle aristocrat parts that have defined her career. It’s her performance that lingers in the mind after Winding Refn’s blood-red film reaches its gory conclusion. (Our interview with Scott Thomas is here.)
As for the aforementioned misogynistic insult, which was suggested to Winding Refn by Gosling, Scott Thomas said it took her eight takes before she could even say the word: “I think if it had been prepared weeks ahead I would have been terrified of it. The confidence that was building between all of us allowed us to go beyond these taboo things.”
Winding Refn on writing the screenplay:
“I was in an existentialist phase, full of troubles. I was permanently angry and didn't know how to channel it. In those moments, you turn to God. That's when I had the idea of a man who thinks he's God and of the relationship between an all-devouring mother and her son. The film I've made is about the notions of spirituality and mysticism.”
Winding Refn, on the violence running through the film:
“My approach is somewhat pornographic - it's what excites me that counts. I can't censor this need. Don't forget that our very birth impels us towards violence. It's instinctive, but down the years it becomes more mind-based and art allows us to express it.”
Cliff Martinez, on the music:
“I didn't think that music could actually replace the dialogue, but I tried to tell the story musically Pop music and Wagner have had a big influence on me. Nicolas asked me to compose something different from Drive. I turned towards a music more typical of science fiction and horror films.”
If Drive was a chill muscle-car cruise through the pulpy noir territory of late 1960s and ‘70s getaway movies, bathed in cool blue neon, Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up, Only God Forgives, is a hypnotic fugue on themes of violence and retribution, drenched in corrosive reds. The skeletal narrative mixes martial arts action with sexually loaded mother-son conflict that makes superficial nods to Shakespeare and Greek tragedy. Even more than the Danish director’s previous film, this one has way more style than subtext, not that it’s likely to diminish its cultish allure for avid genre fans.
Though the movie takes place in the normally lively city of Bangkok, there is an uneasy quiet over much of the film. There are rarely more than a few people on screen at the same time, and they usually let their knives and fists do the talking. Except for quick outbursts, Gosling’s Julian is pretty much silent, and the dark angel is even quieter.
The wallpaper emotes more than Ryan Gosling does in “Only God Forgives,” an exercise in supreme style and minimal substance from “Drive” director Nicolas Winding Refn. In retrospect, the controlled catatonia of Gosling’s previous perfs is nothing compared to the balled fist he plays here, a cipher easily upstaged by Kristin Scott Thomas’ lip-smacking turn as a vindictive she-wolf who travels to Bangkok seeking atonement for the death of her favorite son. As hyper-aggressive revenge fantasies go, it’s curious to see one so devoid of feeling, a veniality even “Drive” fans likely won’t be inclined to forgive.
Unfortunately, by re-teaming with Refn for the far less inventive genre exercise “Only God Forgives,” Gosling has tumbled into the exact trappings that “Drive” smartly assailed. The movie is like one thin satiric lark inexplicably slowed down to the point of lethargy. Gosling plays Julian, a Bangkok-based drug smuggler whose psychotic brother is murdered in an early scene after he rapes and kills a young woman. Enter their hilariously psychotic mother (Kristen Scott Thomas), eager to seek revenge against the girl's mother who committed the initial act of vengeance despite Julian's insistence that the guy had a right… She's enjoyably blunt (comparing his sons' penis sizes at the dinner table) and utterly insane, whereas Gosling seems at first poised to transition into something of a hero and instead remains something of a robot.
He's not alone. Almost everyone moves at a snail's pace in “Only God Forgives.”
[Only God Forgives] is intensely, almost purplishly stylized — a piece of solemnly preposterous revenge pulp, with characters who stand around, their faces impassive, bathed in hot red and blue light, like David Lynch mannequins… One of the two main characters is a retired Bangkok police officer who slashes people’s limbs off with a samurai sword and then retreats to a karaoke nightclub, where he faces an inert audience as he sings melancholy songs of lost love, à la Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet. How cool! How wacky Asian psycho pop!