Cannes Review: Only God Forgives

Fred Topel says Nicolas Winding Refn's second collaboration with Ryan Gosling "squanders the potential and good will of Drive."

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Only God Forgives was my most anticipated movie at Cannes. As one of the highest profile films with established filmmakers and actors, sure enough it was a huge disappointment. That’s not because of expectations though. Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling’s follow-up collaboration to Drive squanders the potential and good will of Drive.

Julian (Gosling) is a drug dealer in Thailand. When his brother is murdered for raping and killing a teenage girl, their mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) comes to get justice. She’s disappointed in Julian for siding with the anti-raping-teenagers people and demands Julian honor their family.

We know Refn is a fetish filmmaker. He says so. The main fetish in Only God Forgives is a mother fetish, which is legitimate to explore but is also a creepy one and totally on the nose here. Crystal talks about her sons’ “cocks” all the time, and puts Julian in the role of both infantilized child and surrogate husband. Yeah, we get it. In the plot, it goes nowhere. He’s got another fetish about Mai (Rhatha Phongam) putting Julian in a submissive position but that doesn’t seem to go anywhere either. 

I wonder if Refn is daring us with Only God Forgives. He slipped a lot of his style into a conventional narrative with Drive, so now he’s saying, “You liked that? Will you still like it if I don’t give you that story?” There is no narrative drive here. (Ha!) Even though the plot of Only God Forgives should be a revenge-fueled gang war of sorts, it just doesn’t play out. The shots are there, the long hallways, the characters in lower center frame. But when Driver stretched his glove, we knew he was going to use it.

I think we all got Refn-ed. He gives us all the slow motion, all the stillness, but then nothing. He builds up the preparation for a fight, then keeps cutting away from the fight. There’s graphic violence but it loses impact when it’s not in your face as long as the head stomping in Drive was. Refn does the Andalusian Dog shot, which is a spoiler if you know the reference, but if you do that with realistic effects it’s not interesting. It’s just more violence. I even saw an early scene from the film with very Drive-y slow motion violence and a song playing under it. The scene is cut to two beats in the actual film, and the song is now instrumental score. So there was more and Refn made a conscious choice to take out all the marketable shots. The only interesting stylistic choice is the Thai language title cards.

Julian and the gangsters go back and forth with attacks and retaliations but there’s so little connective tissue it’s like these are loosely the scenes of provocation and retaliation, or of Julian trying to get out but being pulled back in. He certainly doesn’t have an arc. He has neither convictions nor moral ambiguity. He protests avenging his brother and then does what his mom wants, but does it with no heart in it. That should be interesting though, deconstructing the revenge myth or the heroic code of honor, but it’s not doing that. Julian is just disinterested.

The women will love how silent Gosling is as Julian. It’s all broody and they’ll swoon, but even the most Goslinged Goslingites may draw the line here. I liked the part where he screamed at Mai after sitting silently through a dinner where Crystal abused her. That was a sort of Nicolas Cagey moment that also didn’t pay off. He never returns to that state. It’s a one-off. It’s like a dare. Can you still relate to this character if we give you nothing? Some people will, but to me it’s not worth trying.

Watch the dinner scene from Only God Forgives, exclusively at CraveOnline.

Maybe this is Refn’s Terrence Malick film. Maybe upon repeat viewings, the connections and subtexts will reveal themselves. I don’t think it’s worth it anyway. There’s got to be something worth watching once to make you explore any further. I won’t make a joke about forgiving Refn for this detour, because I already got away with “narrative Drive.” I won’t push my luck. 



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Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.