By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist May 23, 2013 at 12:09PM
As you may have heard by now, the reception for Nicolas Winding Refn's latest "Only God Forgives" was mixed at the Cannes Film Festival, with a smattering of boos mixed in with applause during the press screening on Wednesday morning. Our review by Jessica Kiang didn't find much substance beyond the gorgeous stylization, but I would beg to differ that there is much more going on than just a twisted, Oedipal, coming-of-age story (of sorts). I would wager that beneath the slick surface is a story about breaking a cycle of violence...and that's all I can really write about it, without spoiling things further.
But needless to say, for anyone who is a Refn or Ryan Gosling fan, the pair truly commit themselves to a unique vision on their second collaboration, and "Only God Forgives" is definitely worth tracking down to see what the chatter is all about. Having had an overly long international flight and testy, jetlagged sleep to think the movie over after seeing it at Cannes, below I'll dip into five things you need to know about it. Hopefully it'll help clarify why the movie has been polarizing -- it's essentially another take on the flick and hopefully it'll better set your expectations when it opens on July 19th.
With the neon pop glow of "Drive," Refn didn't quite launch himself into the mainstream, but certainly gathered a broder audience than he ever had before. It's certainly his most accessible picture to date, and while a reteam with Gosling might suggest another movie aimed squarely at the same audience, both actor and director tried something more challenging. In fact, one could argue that "Only God Forgives" is much more in line tonally and narratively with "Valhalla Rising" (the movie that inspired Gosling to pick Refn to direct "Drive" in the first place).
Both movies employ deliberate, hypnotic and extremely mannered pacing (which some might call boring, while others have said it borders on parody). Everything in "Only God Forgives" moves s-l-o-w-l-y, with characters even walking in a certain, measured pace and dialogue coming few and far between, and delivered with careful timing. But the movie also feels like a David Lynch style dream, complete with surreal sequences that blur the line of reality. The neon sweat glow is still here from "Drive," but it's employed in an entirely different and much more haunted manner and there's no throwback electronica hits to shake you from the swallowing fog of dread that builds throughout the picture.
Perhaps this isn't a surprise, given it's set in Bangkok, but "Only God Forgives" is mostly in Thai, with some English as well. Maybe something of a 60/40 split. But again, given that the dialogue is so minimal anyway, this shouldn't be a burden but it's easy to see why The Weinstein Company put this on their VOD label Radius. (General audiences are still afraid of subtitles, it seems). To underline the point, this is hardly in the same ballpark as "Drive" and definitely a much more challenging picture to market and sell without a Pitchfork approved playlist of tunes and one line zingers (though they are a couple from Kristin Scott Thomas, which you've heard already if you've watched the clips).
Another reason this one is hard to market? Ryan Gosling barely speaks. Once again, the stamp of "Valhalla Rising" is felt as just like One-Eye, Julian is a man of few words, but unlike Mads Mikkelsen's warrior, Gosling's lead isn't quite a tough guy. Without spoiling too much Julian is essentially cajoled into seeking revenge for the death of his brother, at the insistence of his manipulative mother. But he has conflicted feelings about it and unlike the methodical cool of Driver, who wasted no time is dispatching anyone who got in his way, Julian studies his own bare hands and ponders the moral and emotional repercussions of his actions even before he even decides what he's going to do. Sorry, no scorpion jacket-style baddassery here.
That being said...when it's time for shit to get real, Refn doesn't hold back. "Only God Forgives" is ruthlessly, explicitly violent and again, leans more toward "Valhalla Rising" brutality than "Drive." We won't go into exact detail, but needless to say when the villain carries a blade, you can expect some geysers of blood to spew forth. In the world of "Only God Forgives," bullets mean little when compared to knives, fists and few interesting implements of torture.
Duh, right? While the electro-pop of the "Drive" soundtrack gave Refn's films its slow, it was Cliff Martinez who provided the edge, and he doesn't it again here. His score for "Only God Forgives" is not only one of the year's best, it's integral to creating the tenor that Refn is aiming for in the film. It's a beautifully heavy piece of work with funereal organs employed at one point, to join the sombre strings and fuzzy electronic shades that Martinez adds throughout. It's both propulsive and intensely gloomy at times, but works in perfect conjunction with Refn's careful framing to create something truly special. It's definitely one of Martinez's highlights on an already impressive CV. Also, the karaoke scenes are pretty ace (and blackly hilarious) too.
Questions? Is there anything else you want to know about "Only God Forgives"? Between our review and this piece this is as good a portrait of the film you're likely to get without spoiling the movie entirely. Does this leave you feeling more or less excited? Weigh in below.