Cannes may not have been the ideal place to debut "Only God Forgives" which was met with hesitant applause there last May. But Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's batshit, balls-to-the-walls Bangkok-set followup to 2011's "Drive" deserves closer consideration. Clearly, this far less accessible film won't be everyone's thing when RADiUS/TWC opens the film stateside July 19.
Before the film started, Winding Refn told us that while "Drive" was like "doing cocaine all night," "Only God Forgives" is more of "an old school acid trip." But this film -- nocturnal, deathly quiet and far more sinister -- is also a more sleepy psychotropic experience. It's David Lynch goes to Thailand to direct a spaghetti western on quaaludes.
Rather than the neon-soaked LA streets of "Drive," this time Winding Refn's milieu is the criminal underbelly of Bangkok, dressed in red and black. Ryan Gosling gives a somnambulant performance -- for better and for worse -- as Julian, a drug-dealer with an Oedipal streak and plenty of anger issues along with the mommy ones. When his brother is killed during a botched prostitute transaction, their blonde, feisty, perpetually cigarette-wielding mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, in a performance that will no doubt pick up a few awards come fall) shows up in Thailand to exact revenge. Or, rather, to sick her lost puppy of a son Julian on whoever did this.
Julian endures some literal beatings in Winding Refn's slick, languorous tableaux but moreover he must suffer the barrage of emotional punches levied upon him by Crystal as she beats him into submission. Winding Refn's sparse screenplay, in which Gosling says only a few words, lays the incestuous undertones front and center in a film that emphasizes sensation rather than sense. What follows is a tightly edited exercise in extreme violence and ennui, with a revenge plan that goes as out of control as one in any Coen Brothers' film. It's one of the best films of the year.
In a Q & A moderated by LAFF artistic director and former Newsweek film critic David Ansen, the articulate provocateur opened up about "Only God Forgives," first and foremost reiterating his comment from Cannes that he is a "pornographer."
"I make films about what arouses me at different times. I loved the idea of doing a mother and son story set in a fairytale construction, with a narrative that is all about seeing and feeling and in a way you have to fill in the blanks," Winding Refn said. "Art is most satisfying when it's a two-way process. It has to penetrate you and you have to throw it back to a give-and-take, or else it becomes one-way."
Ansen iterated some of the influences and comparisons that ran through the film. Clearly, Alain Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad" is acutely felt in "Only God Forgives," not only due to composer Cliff Martinez's pulsing organ motif -- in a score that is equal parts electro minimalism and synthy, Badalamentian melodrama -- but because the characters move as if they are "asleep," as Winding Refn said. He used the mythology of the sleepwalker, "condemned to a sense of Dante's Inferno," to construct Julian.
"Because the film has so little verbal explanation, which is one of the tools we're used to now in cinema and television to guide us, when you remove that element it's a very interesting landscape because you're forced to tell the story through sound, music and images," Winding Refn revealed. Considering that the director is colorblind, it's a wonder that he is able to conjure such colorful cinema.