Expectations here in Cannes were high—or at least semi-high—for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, in which Kristin Scott Thomas and Ryan Gosling play a mother-son duo with what might politely be called unresolved issues. Gosling’s Julian has always played second fiddle to his older brother, Billy (Tom Burke)—the two of them live in Bangkok where, we learn, they assist mom in a drug-smuggling operation. One day Billy up and decides to murder an underage prostitute; he’s subsequently killed at the behest of a police officer. Scott Thomas—who, in her pink lipstick and flossy blond dye job, looks a little like a really tall Kristen Chenoweth, one who hasn’t been sucking helium—flies into town in a rage, seeking revenge on the person or people who murdered her beloved first-born.
Julian has to break the news to her that Billy was actually not such a nice guy, what with his penchant for slaughtering Thai teenage girls and all. That actually seems to make Thomas think more highly of her elder son. Meanwhile, Gosling bats his eyelashes sensitively. Some bad things, involving cheese knives and other sharp implements, happen to Thai sex-club honchos. One scene might be subtitled “A Womb with a View,” except you don’t actually see much.
Two years ago, Refn’s Drive, also starring Gosling, swerved into the festival like a 1970 Dodge Challenger. The picture had energy (and gasoline) flowing through its veins, and plenty of those who saw it here—I was among them—fell in love on the spot. Only God Forgives isn’t in the same league. I’ve outlined the plot more sharply than it’s drawn in the movie: This picture isn’t so much about who, what, where, when, and why as much as posing Gosling just-so in front of exotic orangey Oriental-print wallpaper, or allowing the camera lens to travel lovingly across the length of a sword about to be used to perform horrible deeds. The violence isn’t particularly graphic, yet it’s rather nasty in the way it’s suggested. A colleague and I watched a few scenes through what New York‘s David Edelstein calls FingerVision.
We also giggled quite a bit. Only God Forgives—despite Scott Thomas’s camp-o-rama performance—takes itself too seriously. It’s a genre picture with an art-housey structure, an instance of Refn and the normally phenomenal Gosling trying too hard to make an ultra-violent movie that’s also, you know, tasteful. But while many of my colleagues huffed and puffed in disgust or disappointment as they filtered out of the screening, I felt a strange sort of calm, a twisted sense of well-being. Only God Forgives is so un-exhilarating that it’s practically a narcotic. The violence may cause a bit of squishy discomfort as you’re watching it, but the memory of it doesn’t linger much past the last frame. The wallpaper, on the other hand, is unforgettable.