Ryan Gosling must be feeling pretty happy about his decision to skip the red carpet at Cannes this year. Critics at the Riviera film festival vivisected "Only God Forgives," his ultra-violent collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn, leaving it as bruised and battered as the hunky star appears in promotional art for the film.
Winding Refn, the enfant terrible of Danish film, previously teamed with Gosling on "Drive," earning a Best Director award at Cannes in 2011 for his hallucinatory crime story. Once again, the screen pulsates with all manner of blood-letting — from beheadings to mutilations with ice picks. The film finds a street-fighting Gosling punching, kicking and maiming his way through Bangkok to avenge his brother's death. It opens stateside on July 19.
Sasha Stone of TheWrap was left reaching for the steel wool in the hopes of scrubbing the film from her senses. Stone found Winding Refn's violent excesses soulless and despicable.
"What his film amounts to, in the end, is the careful work of a serial killer," Stone writes. "Refn isn’t literally killing women, but he’s indulging in one bloody killing after another, and practically licking the knife afterwards."
And likening Winding Refn to a mass murderer stands as one of the gentler critical allusions the film and its maker received.
When "Only God Forgives" finally hits these shores, Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere may be there to welcome it with lighter fluid. Rarely do pans get more vitriolic than his screed against Winding Refn's style and the film's substance. Indeed, Wells' brutal assessment calls to mind Roger Ebert's legendary excoriation of Rob Reiner's "North."
"Movies really don’t get much worse than Nicholas Winding Refn’s 'Only God Forgives.'" Wells rails. "It’s a shit macho fantasy – hyper violent, ethically repulsive, sad, nonsensical, deathly dull, snail-paced, idiotic, possibly woman-hating, visually suffocating, pretentious. I realize I sound like Rex Reed on one of his rants, but trust me, please – this is a defecation by an over-praised, over-indulged director who thinks anything he craps out is worthy of your time. I felt violated, shat upon, sedated, narcotized, appalled and bored stiff."
In case you missed the point that he hated the movie, Wells helpfully entitles his review "Stink Spreads All Over."
Peter Debruge of Variety upbraids Gosling for giving a "near catatonic" performance, jabbing the actor by claiming the wall paper does more emoting. Debruge is willing to concede that Winding Refn has a mastery of film technique and an ability, like Quentin Tarantino, to repurpose the Grind House for the Art House, but he faults the director for favoring artifice over emotion.
"Watching Gosling withhold, one can practically hear the director behind the camera, demanding take after take, as he shouts, 'Let’s try it again, only this time, more impassive!,'" Debruge writes.
Matt Patches of Hollywood.com gripes that "Only God Forgives" is pretentious and devoid of the little things that make films worth watching, like narrative and character development. Oh, and dialogue, as Gosling gets to deliver fewer than twenty lines, he writes.
"The movie has tunnel vision, and while it occasionally breaks – there's a cheeky recurring gag of the cop singing karaoke – that sense of humor and personality never round out 'Only God Forgives,'" Patches writes. "Instead, Gosling is given his 17 lines and the camera starts rolling. If there were subtext underneath the silence, the brevity may have worked."
In Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman predicted that "Only God Forgives" will fail to generate the critical excitement that "Drive" experienced and suggested Winding Refn should ditch the lurid crime dramas and apply his passion for blood splatter to the horror genre. Barring that, he should perhaps invest more time in script development.
"'Only God Forgives' doesn’t have a script so much as it has a body count," Gleiberman writes. "Its characters, even the one played by Gosling (his name is Julian), don’t pretend to be anything more than one-note abstractions."
Of course, there are always one or two reviewers with the stones to break away from the critical pack. In this case, the producers of "Only God Forgives" owe The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw an overstuffed gift basket for his five-star rave. Bradshaw notes that the film will have some running for the exits, but praised Winding Refn's flare for crafting nightmare celluloid visions.
"It is very violent, but Winding Refn's bizarre infernal creation, an entire created world of fear, really is gripping," Bradshaw writes. "Every scene, every frame, is executed with pure formal brilliance. I'm afraid it's going to be even nastier the next time I watch it."
When Bradshaw goes back for that second viewing he may have the theater to himself.