Cannes Review: 'Only God Forgives' is a sleek, virtually non-narrative blood ballet
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.)