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.