Cannes Review: 'Only God Forgives' is a sleek, virtually non-narrative blood ballet
Crystal, of course, is having none of it: a seething emasculator in Real Housewives chic, she's on the first plane to Thailand to mourn her favorite son -- she makes no bones about this -- and berate the other one for his cowardice. Bearing down on Julian at the same time is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a retired policeman on the warpath against the Bangkok underworld for reasons as enigmatic as Julian's own motivations. Indeed, "enigmatic" seems to have been used as a placeholder term throughout the script: what matters (or doesn't) to Refn is that characters do things he can pore over in his catalogue of violence.
One of the film's most interesting scenes -- not so much narratively as in the way it beats down audience expectations accumulated over decades of the star system -- finds Julian challenging Chang to a boxing duel, only to put up not much fight himself as Chang swiftly beats him to steak tartare, leaving his face a ghoulish mask of bruising for the rest of the film. It could be that Chang is simply that indomitable, though Julian -- having entered the fight in a natty three-piece suit -- appears to give himself no chance to begin with. Is this simple defeat, a death wish, or a token gesture at revenge made to please his mother, watching stonily from the sidelines? If Refn knows, he has little interest in telling us; of more concern to him is the perverse beauty of watching Ryan Gosling getting his ass most bloodily kicked.
"Drive" may have made Gosling a star, cinematically salivating over his every head turn, but "Only God Forgives" is far less kind to him: if he's not getting physically pummeled, he's taking a verbal beating from Kristin Scott Thomas, who steals the film with queenly entitlement in her few scenes. Correctly surmising that the best way to counter the potentially star-freezing polish of Refn's aesthetic is to vamp it up with discordant relish, her Crystal is both the film's most poisonous presence and its most vital life force, the kind of walking nightmare who, upon learning that her late son murdered a child, responds cuttingly, "I'm sure he had his reasons."
Refn seems barely interested in his script's allusions (they barely count as innuendo) to mother-son sexual relations; Scott Thomas, on the other hand, revels in them, musing on the size of his cock over dinner with flirtatious viciousness. It's a grand, gleeful performance in a film that scarcely demands it; sneaking the film itself past the Academy's faint-hearted acting branch will be a tough task, but the campaign for a Best Supporting Actress nomination (with the chance to hear the words "cum dumpster" on national television) begins now.
"Only God Forgives" is equally well-served -- albeit in a manner rather more compliant with Refn's vision -- by cinematographer Larry Smith, who hasn't had this kind of showcase for his abilities since "Eyes Wide Shut." As in that Kubrick marvel, his precise lighting schemes locate texture and contrast even in near-total darkness. "Drive" composer Cliff Martinez, meanwhile, contributes an electronic score of magnificently atonal sonic animosity, less bar-friendly than his ubiquitous "Drive" soundtrack, but even more brooding.
"Only God Forgives" could hardly look or sound more luscious, then -- which is either a problem, if you think a film that dwells this extensively on the least pleasant reaches of human behavior has an obligation not to ornamentalize them, or a virtue, if you simply buy the film as the inhuman cartoon that Refn and cast do. I can accept the latter, but wish the cartoon was a bit more, well, animated. For a film in which the first word of dialogue uttered by Gosling on screen is the simple directive "go," "Only God Forgives" ultimately stagnates in its exquisite pools of red.
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