Any movie that gets booed at the Cannes Film Festival has to have some kind of mojo going for it. The one-stop objection is that Only God Forgives, starring Ryan Gosling as an American hood dealing drugs in Bangkok with a boxing club as his front, revels in violence. Ha! Pop culture thrives on brutality. Did you ever play a video game? What really pisses off audiences about Only God Forgives are its arty pretensions. Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, the Pusher trilogy), who directed Gosling to spectacular effect in 2011’s Drive, refuses to send out his films with a decoder. He believes cinema is made up of images and sounds that mesh and collide in ways that speak to the individual viewer. Refn dedicates his film to Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean-French avant-gardist behind El Topo, and references David Lynch with equal brio.
About violence, Refn is a self-confessed pornographer. Gosling’s Julian is a latter-day Hamlet with an Oedipus complex. It’s suggested he might have murdered Daddy at the request of mom Crystal, played by a diabolically funny Kristin Scott Thomas. She is every son’s worst nightmare. Crystal has flown in from hell to do what Julian won’t or can’t do: Avenge the killing of his creep brother Billy (Tom Burke), Crystal’s first-born, for murdering an underage hooker. “I’m sure he had his reasons,” says Crystal, avowing that Julian has always been jealous of Billy for having the bigger cock. She dismisses his girlfriend as a “cum dumpster” and puts him in the lethal path of a Thai cop, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who keeps a sword handy to go all chop-shop on his enemies. He’ll even stop for a song between decapitations. Cinematographer Larry Smith, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on lighting Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut (check out the sex-club scenes), gives the film a toxic allure. And the synth score, by Drive‘s Cliff Martinez, is some kind of new classic.
Only God Forgives is a treasure trove for cinephiles, which may be the problem. Refn’s influences dominate when you most want them to fuse into a personal style all his own. The film never coheres the way Drive did. There’s motion but no momentum. Gosling, meant to be a blank page for us to write on, often looks merely blank. Where Drive shrewdly mystifies, Only God Forgives stupefies. You can see its gears grinding. But I’ll always hang on for a rare talent like Refn. Even when he stumbles, he leaves you eager to see what he’s up to next.