Following the success of Un Certain Regard favourite Drive back in 2011, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn returns to the Croisette with Only God Forgives (2013), a stylish if ultimately shallow essay in extremism. Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a Muay Thai boxing club owner and drug dealer living in Bangkok along with older brother Billy (Tom Burke). When his brother rapes and murders a girl, a policeman (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows the father to beat Billy to death before then punishing said father. Julian’s mother, Crystal – Kristin Scott Thomas, looking like a dissipated Cameron Diaz – turns up, intent on vengeance.
Aspiring to capture the shock value of an Ichi the Killer, Only God Forgives somehow feels provocative without having anything real to say. Refn’s style is so studied as to be almost academic: the reds and greens of his colour palette and the icky gore are almost box-ticking in their Gaspar Noé-worshipping consistency. Some of the lines are witty (with a bleak nihilism), but, like Gosling in Bangkok, the Danish director gives the impression of a nice boy playing nasty. Once again finding himself in a leading role, Gosling often feels like he’s doing a bad impression of himself, his melancholy mid-distance stare occasionally glazing over, before happily getting his face pummelled beyond recognition.
Generic clichés are played out with verve – the merciless villain, the interrogation, the foot chase, the fist fight – and each moment is brilliantly done. However, they still exist as capsules connected by a somnambulant plod down red-lit corridors and a stunning Cliff Martinez soundtrack. Where Only God Forgives is hypnotic, it risks slumber; when it tries to be sexy, it’s often just silly. The extreme violence becomes predictable and sometimes more interesting elements are thrown away to satisfy the blood-lust. Refn’s latest is likely to be massively divisive and such controversy will undoubtedly be welcomed, but unfortunately it all feels too mannered, too purposefully provocative – like being shouted at by someone who has nothing themselves to contribute.
And yet, the film is damned stylish and at times wonderfully bizarre and tense. For all the disconnect, some scenes are brilliant and Scott Thomas and Pansringarm both impress as the dangerous mother and father-principle-running-wild, respectively (the demonic Chang exuding menace with the merest squeak of his shoes). Only God Forgives sits more easily beside 2009’s Valhalla Rising (with their one-eyed anti-heroes), than the more commercially-viable Drive, and once again Refn certainly seems to be doing his own thing. The question as to why he’s doing it still hangs in the air.
The 66th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 15-27 May, 2013. For more of our Cannes 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.