Nicolas Winding Refn's follow-up to "Drive" takes him further away from traditional plot 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 his film amounts to, in the end, is the careful work of a serial killer. Refn isn't literally killing women, but he's indulging in one bloody killing after another, and practically licking the knife afterwards. The crowd here in Cannes clapped enthusiastically. It will be a 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. In that film, he saved the vulnerable Carey Mulligan from the horrors of evil; here, there is no such goodness afoot, or whatever goodness there is gets swallowed up by casual evil. No need to muddy the waters with kindness when the money shot is exposed ribs with blood gurgling out.
Gosling plays one of two sons whose mother is the excellent Kristin 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 a reason to see the movie, she's it.
See photos: The Scene at the Cannes Film Festival 2013
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. That's 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 was supposed to have gone to Gosling's character, but he refused. "He raped and killed a teenage girl," he tells his mother. She caresses his biceps and makes him kiss her, but unlike another seductive mom – Anjelica Huston in "The Grifters" – Thomas takes direct sexual advantage. Onscreen it is merely implied. You can be grateful for that small favor from this soulless, despicable film.
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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 doesn't just show 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. "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 festival. To that end, I can see why there was so much enthusiasm by this crowd afterwards. Refn wanted to make an obtuse, nearly 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 triumph over evil, it would seem. It is only because of 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 one who hovers somewhere between good and evil.
The plot of "Only God Forgives" can be summed up in relatively few sentences, and 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 many 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.