The Cannes Film Festival has had its most divisive Competition entry thus far with the unveiling of Drive combo Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling’s Only God Forgives. How divisive? One side is hailing it an existential masterpiece, the other an empty, soulless vehicle swollen with sadistic violence and misogyny, an adolescent-minded fantasy run amok.
No question there were plenty in the latter camp, with a small but steady stream of walkouts throughout and a smattering of boos that were, in fact, trumped by the applause. Winding Refn – what is it with Danish provocateurs? – likely didn’t endear himself when he declared at the press conference afterwards that he approached film-making “like a pornographer”.
Well, at least he’s honest about his fetishistic impulses – and he’s said to be delighted by the schismatic reaction to Only God Forgives. Winding Refn’s hyper-stylised follow-up to Drive features limb amputations, eye gouging, ear impaling and the normally refined Kristin Scott Thomas in a peroxide-wig as the trashy American mother of Gosling’s Julian. She’s a bestial piece of work who, during a dining scene that stood out amongst the brutal mayhem, demands of her son’s female companion… well, things that wouldn’t be suitable to write here.
It also features Gosling as a lean, mean machine operating in a seedy Bangkok underworld of prostitutes, boxing clubs and garish neon-lighting, a tormented character who walks so slowly and deliberately grannies with walkers would be in danger of mowing him down at Tescos. When his older brother rapes and murders a 16-year-old Thai prostitute, and in turn is killed by her father at the urging of local police lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), it sets off a chain of gruesome, tit-for-tat brutality, as Chang and Crystal circle each other in a savage dance of duelling psychopaths. Gosling is an almost passive participant in his own fate; and like the Driver, he hardly utters a word or moves his face.
Much of the opprobrium has to do with Winding Refn’s seeming disinterest in letting story or characters get in the way of film-making verve. He’s taken a few tips from Gaspar Noé (thanked in the credits along with, peculiarly, Michael Bay and – gulp – his mother), whose Irreversible is a clear influence. Also, Wong-Kar Wai, David Lynch and, quite possibly, torture-porn practitioners – a scene involving steel chopsticks is especially nasty and sparked a fair few walkouts. While it’s impossible to get emotionally drawn into this frequently portentous outing, Only God Forgives nonetheless becomes an immersive experience thanks to its frenzied and artful lighting and production design (dominated by a palette of bloody reds), Cliff Martinez’s doomy electronic score and Winding Refn’s unsettling camerawork; an assortment of circles, pans and tilts that makes you feel like the devil’s on the other side of the camera.
That, of course, also implicates the viewer, although I don’t believe Winding Refn is making any particular statement with his disembodied approach – Only God Forgives ultimately feels desperately hollow. The director’s said he set out to make a film about a man who wants to fight God, and as Gosling strolls alone down dark, ornate corridors, seemingly lost in nightmares or perhaps just baffled by who his etch-a-sketch character is meant to be, he remains distant, vague, undefined. But damn, doesn’t he look spiffy in a suit.