Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to Drive takes him farther away from traditional narrative and deeper into abstract expressionism. His painter’s eye makes Only God Forgives something beautiful to behold, awash in deep reds and geometric, carefully thought out shot compositions. But what it amounts to, in the end, is the careful work of a serial killer — not literally out there killing women but indulging in one bloody killing after another, practically licking the knife afterwards. The crowd here in Cannes clapped enthusiastically. It will be the runaway favorite of the art house crowd, no doubt.

Ryan Gosling is given even less dialogue in Only God Forgives than he had in Drive, where he also played an ambient hottie automaton saving the vulnerable Carey Mulligan from the horrors of evil. Here, there is no such goodness afoot, or whatever goodness there is become swallowed up by casual evil. No need to muddy the waters when the money shot is exposed ribs with blood gurgling out.

Gosling plays one of two sons whose mother is the excellent Kristen Scott Thomas, tarted up like a Beverly Hills Housewife with glossy manicured nails, heels, bleached blonde tresses, a padded bra and wrinkle-covering makeup. She’s great, and if there is only one reason to see the movie, she’s it. It helps that Refn actually gives her some dialogue and that she’s naturally a great actress. Whatever the director doesn’t provide, Thomas likely filled in. Something the other actors, as good as they are, can’t really manage.

The other son is really of no consequence other than his position as the “bad seed” — lacking any morality whatsoever; only wanting to find, rape and slaughter teenage girls. It isn’t long before he’s done in — a limp display of organ meat soaked in yet more blood. Then here comes mommy (Thomas) to avenge his death. The task is supposed to have gone to Gosling’s character but he refused. “He raped and killed a teenage girl,” he tells his mother. She makes him kiss her and caresses his biceps but unlike another seductive mom — Anjelica Huston in The Grifters — Thomas next takes direct sexual advantage. Onscreen it is merely implied. You can be grateful for that small favor from this soulless, despicable film.

There is one other female character who is on sexual display — there are only the evil mother, prostitutes and the odd face of this young girl. It is telling, and an historical marker of 2013 that you can show a woman’s throat being sliced in half but not her vagina.

There are shades of Terrence Malick in the dialogue-free execution. There are even more shades of David Lynch but Refn is going to have to go back to Lynch school to pick up a few things he missed. Like how Lynch not only showing violence for violence’s sake. Popping in the odd singer now and again for laughs does not quite cut it; underneath the layers of Lynch’s most opaque films is heavy context and even weightier subtext. You can dig down and find meaning in his films, even if it isn’t obvious. This film, Only God Forgives, is a single layer deep. There is nothing more to it.

That hardly mattered to the crowd around me. Only God Forgives was met with applause by an audience that really wanted to see something risky in the sea of safe players offered up so far at the film festival. To that end, I can see why there was so much enthusiasm by this crowd afterwards. Refn wanted to make an obtuse, word-free tribute to the slicing off of limbs — and he’s done that. What it means ultimately will likely depend on your own thirst for such an exercise. At the end of the day, good does overcome evil, it would seem. It is only our reflexive impulse to love our movie stars that we come to feel affection for Gosling’s character. But it may be a misleading impulse, as it’s not really clear what kind of a man his character is meant to be — probably hovering somewhere between good and evil.

The plot of Only God Forgives can be summed up in relatively few sentences. It really doesn’t exist for any reason except to get people off on the artistry of killing. There is a place for movies like this and there are many who will love it. For me, it was two hours of precious time I will never get back. Never. Moreover, I’ll need bury Refn’s images deep in order to remember the beautiful things I saw from others — here’s to hoping I can forget them by the time I’m on the plane, mercifully, back to Los Angeles.

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  • Evan

    “soulless, despicable.”

    That’s a bit much, don’t you think?

    Also, having just seen Trance last night, I’ve got to disagree with your statement “… an historical marker of 2013 that you can show a woman’s throat being sliced in half but not her vagina.” I really think you’re just reading too much into it there.

  • Matt

    Peter Bradshaw gave this 5/5

  • ^
    You forgot to say BREAKING NEWS:

  • Matt

    Haha. Refn is a hack. I’m sure his legion will defend this though plus Bradshaw likes going against the grain. Didn’t he rave The Paperboy here last year?

  • I missed that bit in Trance.

  • Dominik

    This will be the fanboy movie of the year, no doubt!

  • julian the emperor

    Peter Bradshaw’s review provides us with a sense of why the film’s aesthetic is meaningful (in a way), whereas Sasha’s expresses why it’s meaningless (even nihilistic or misogynist). I would have to see the film in order to take a position in favor of one or the other, but is is hardly surprising that Refn once again displays his ability to pull you in/push you away. He is a filmmaker eminently capable of making a raw impression without having to rely on character studies or full-bloated narratives.

  • Bryce Forestieri

    Oscar chances = zero

    Not that I didn’t know that already!

    Having skimmed through the reactions, my interest has doubled this morning. At least I don’t have to wait too long for this one.

  • CCA

    Great review Shasha, as usual…. How do you see Kristin Scott Thomas chances with Oscar?

  • Bryce Forestieri

    Loving all the mad angry reviews have to include that it was boring. Sounds anything but! <3

  • bennett

    who cares about Oscar chances when there are so many other things to care about when we’re discussing movies, specially the type of cinema Refn delivers (and many other underrated – I mean at Oscar – directors have to share with us)?

  • Bryce Forestieri

    specially the type of cinema Refn delivers

    Totally agree. Just thought I mentioned it since this’s Awards Daily after all

  • Noah R.

    Has Refn ever been anything other than a stylist? I don’t say that as a criticism — I like Drive, Bronson, and even Valhalla Rising — but how is the press surprised that he doesn’t have much interest other than making ultra-violent genre pictures with an arthouse aesthetic? That’s what he does. The divisive reviews just make me want to see Only God Forgives even more. Hey, I might hate as much as you and Wells, but how often do films actually move people to want to walk out? There’s so much fanboyism in cinema; you sit there and you either enjoy it or you don’t. Thank God for filmmakers who actually want to provoke something from the viewer, one way or the other.

  • DArgento

    You missed the vagina in Trance?

    Sasha worded it strangely to make it sound as if we are missing out on vaginas being sliced, but she meant seeing vaginas at all.

  • Matt

    Keep thinking Refn’s hollow, macho fantasy tales have anything going on beneath the surface. At lest Oscar bait is honest, Refn is a clueless hack. Ever seen Thief directed by Michael Mann? Yeah, it’s Drive.

  • Christophe

    This is a travesty! Ryan Gosling was expected to be in Cannes today but couldn’t come due to some insurance stuff. HE was the only reason that stupid film was chosen to be in the competition, so we could see him strut around the Croisette with all the media attention he would’ve brought to the Festival.

  • Ah! K lol, yes indeed.

    And I don’t think Nicolas Winding Refn is the type to censor nudity. He got Mads Mikkelsen to have a wee tug at the start of Pusher 2, sure!

  • Bryce Forestieri

    Sure I will. Ever seen LE SAMOURAI and others films that influenced DRIVE? I won’t fight about a movie I haven’t seen, plus I don’t think anyone’s gonna chance anyone’s mind here. You must have gone nuts the year of DRIVE though.

  • Bryce Forestieri

    macho fantasy tales

    Wrong. Won’t go into it since I don’t appreciate my self-esteem being questioned. Peace.

  • Sure, cause DRIVE came out before THIEF, which makes THIEF just a copy. Oh, wait…

    Okay, something less smartass; Mann may film violence in a stylish way, but he doesn’t fetishize it like Brofn does in DRIVE. That’s the difference.

  • So sorry, Matt, I misread your comment. Ignore the first part and skip to the second.

  • Cyrus

    Here are high hopes that Kristin Scott Thomas gets a nod for supporting actress.

    I think she was ROBBED for best actress for her amazing I’ve Loved You So Long! She was amazzzzzzzzzzzzzzzing in that.

    Here’s hoping 😉

  • CMG

    Interesting that you portrayed a much warmer reception to the movie than what I have read on Twitter and blogs. It seems you were not alone in being left cold by this because aside from the praise of KST’s performance in it, people seemed to really hate it.

    I will say that I am surprised people are surprised how much of a sausage-fest the movie is. It is not like any of the women in Refn’s 2 previous movies were exactly well-drawn. It pretty much sounds exactly like the movie I was expecting and ambivalent about seeing.

  • Tero Heikkinen

    I know – because of Ryan Gosling – this will be compared to Drive. But even when he makes “violent art house that bow to 80’s action films” (his favourite genre?) it doesn’t look like he wants to make the same picture twice. Think of Pusher trilogy. The first one is a crime thriller, second one acts more like a drama and the third is just some plotless art house. These films changed their tone so much from film to film that Hollywood wouldn’t dare. Risky.

  • Robert A.

    There’s an article trending on Yahoo News that reads, “Ryan Gosling movie booed at Cannes.” Hmm. Not that this necessarily means anything. There are a whole slew of movies that got booed and vilified at Cannes that went on to critical re-evaluations. A sampling of films that got “booed” at Cannes: Antichrist. Taxi Driver (which ironically went on to win the Palme d’Or), The Tree of Life (muted boos, also won the Palme d’Or), Inglourious Basterds (although Cannes saw a rougher cut), Marie Antoinette, Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, The Idiots, L’Avventura, L’Eclipse, Wild at Heart, Cronenberg’s Crash…well, you get the point. The Brooklyn Academy of Music theaters have been sponsoring a film fest titled Booed at Cannes, which featured such movies as Taxi Driver, Twin Peaks/Fire Walk with Me, and Bresson’s last film, L’Argent, which I went to see on Sunday and thought was pretty terrific.

    I’m a fan of Drive so I’m hoping for the best with Only God Forgives. Just wanted to point out that a nasty reception at Cannes does not necessarily mean anything to a film’s shelf life (not that anyone is claiming it does).

  • CMG

    So media outlets are running with it was ‘booed’ as opposed to Sasha’s perspective that there was applause (which I buy). Maybe the news outlets read the twitter feeds of several critics and assumed. Matt Patches mentioned on the Operation Kino podcast that as of Monday, he heard nothing about audience booing at screenings nor been at screenings when it happened- and he went to some absolute bombs.

  • CMG

    BAM Cinematek had a great film series (though I believe they are still running it- if coming to the very end) called ‘Booed at Cannes’ that included Taxi Driver, Wild at Heart, Tropical Malady, among others.

    Also, Guy Lodge appears to have confirmed that Sasha’s read of the room was correct. He, who was mixed to positive, says there were people applauding and cheering when the credits rolled. This was a mixed room (and maybe those who REALLY hated it did not bother to stay to boo at all).

  • Bryce Forestieri

    Booing or not there are now plenty of scathing reviews from major outlets. I just hope they were given complimentary Chantal Akerman dvd boxsets at the exit to salvage their precious eyes from the violation they’d been under.

    Something tells me this film is flawed with gender issues.

  • A Nicolas Winding Refn premiere with a free Chantal Akerman box set gift? LAWD HELP ME! Where was I?!?

    Peter Bradshaw gave it five stars out of five anyway, and I’m #living for KST, so I don’t care how many scathing reviews it gets.

  • steve50

    If they booed it, I’m in – both feet.

    The films they applaud are cloying, for the most part. If it kept them awake, annoyed their sensiblilities, and set the tolerance bar a little high, there’s something there.

  • Jun

    How was Vithaya Pansringarm’s performance?

  • Bball_Jake

    The bad reception for this movie cracks me up. All these critics are going in expecting some amazing and touching storyline, but thats not what this films about. Its about the Style, the action and craziest violence that Refn could put in a film, and Refn making a film that he would dream of seeing himself. Still cant wait for this.

  • chrisw

    What exactly, and how, does KST fill in with her role?

  • Mel

    This is really interesting b/c all media outlets are now just putting that it was booed in the headlines. The media sucks.

    I don’t expect this to be good, I’m one of those people that pretty much felt like this about Drive. I never got what people were jacking off to when it came to Drive. It only reminded me of a class I took in college called “Video Genres” where we learned about a genre or style and given a camera to go out and ape it.

  • Ever seen THE DRIVER starring Ryan O’Neal?

    So my only curiosity about ONLY GOD FORGIVES has been what film it copies. It would be easy to assume that it’s GOD FORGIVES… I DON’T! But Sasha’s mention of THE GRIFTERS makes me wonder if that’s it. We shall see.

  • Bryce Forestieri

    Yes great film!!

    Copy?! You better believe it! I just hope his next film is a straight up remake of MINIAC COP with Gosling as the Maniac Cop!

  • Bryce Forestieri


  • keifer

    I hope so too. She’s been ignored by the Academy way too many times. Even when she appears in a terrible film (“The Other Boleyn Girl”), Kristen Scott Thomas always brings a respectable “good acting” badge with her that elevates the film beyond what it sometimes deserves.

    I loved her beautiful performance in a little seen film from the 1990s called “Angels and Insects”. For all you KST fans, check it out sometime. She’s supporting, and it’s not a showy performance, but like Redgrave, Smith, Streep, etc., she can convey so much about her character through small gestures, nuances, and a simple glance. It doesn’t hurt that she’s drop-dead gorgeous either.

  • keifer

    If I recall correctly, the year “Drive” came out AD participants listed Drive in its top 10 films and Refn as a Best Director nominee. Neither was given. Drive came away empty-handed in the big categories. I remember Brian Cranston gave a terrific supporting performance.

    It was one of my favorite movies of that year. Violent? Definitely. Gratuitiously violent? Definitely not. It was also one of the most suspenseful films I’ve seen in the last decade or so, thanks largely to Refn’s direction.

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