CINEMA: God Only Knows


THE DAILY BEAST: One of the most hotly anticipated films at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, running from May 15-26 in the south of France, is Only God Forgives. The crime-thriller reteams Drive director Nicholas Winding Refn with his star, Ryan Gosling, and is Gosling’s last film before his self-imposed hiatus from acting. Gosling plays Julian, an American running a Muy Thai boxing club in Bankok, Thailand, that’s a front for a drug-smuggling operation. When his brother, Billy (Tom Burke), is killed in an act of revenge after murdering an underage prostitute, the two boys’ mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), comes to town. Crystal is a deliciously evil crime lord, and demands that Julian seek vengeance on the man who killed her favorite son. The film has received mixed reviews at Cannes. Some booed the film after its premiere screening—with one reviewer reportedly calling it “a defecation”— while others have praised the bloody, hyper-stylized neo-noir, including The Hollywood Reporter, who called the film “wicked cool entertainment” and Scott Thomas “a vicious screen bitch for the ages.” In the film’s most talked-about scene, Julian (Gosling) hires a prostitute so he can bring her to dinner with his imposing mother, Crystal (Scott Thomas). But Crystal sees through the ruse, and gives Julian a thorough dressing-down, insulting the size of his manhood. Yes, Kristin Scott Thomas’s character has some harsh, harsh words for Ryan Gosling’s character’s “cock.” MORE


If Drive was a chill muscle-car cruise through the pulpy noir territory of late 1960s and ‘70s getaway movies, bathed in cool blue neon, Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up, Only God Forgives, is a hypnotic fugue on themes of violence and retribution, drenched in corrosive reds. The skeletal narrative mixes martial arts action with sexually loaded mother-son conflict that makes superficial nods to Shakespeare and Greek tragedy. Even more than the Danish director’s previous film, this one has way more style than subtext, not that it’s likely to diminish its cultish allure for avid genre fans.

While Winding Refn’s stylized directorial stamp has certainly earned him a place at the big-league festival table, the Cannes programmers’ decision to offer an official competition berth to an entry with Midnight Movie coded into its DNA has once again raised eyebrows and a few sneers. However, as a launch platform for its July 19 U.S. release through the Weinstein Company’s Radius label, that should only help fuel awareness. Alongside the magnetic Ryan Gosling as another taciturn brooding antihero, the film’s juiciest pleasure is Kristin Scott Thomas as a crime empress who works a slender cigarette like a master calligrapher wielding a brush.

The actress’ frequent detours into deglamorized roles in contemporary French films aside, for many of us she remains indelibly associated with period pieces, as if a Marcel Wave and a fur stole were intrinsic parts of her elegant screen persona. In a brilliant casting stroke, she appears here as Crystal, a platinum-haired, poison-tongued ice queen who conjures thoughts of Lady Macbeth, Medea and Tamora from Titus Andronicus, as styled by Donatella Versace.

Gosling plays Julian, an American hiding out from justice in Bangkok, where he runs a Muay Thai boxing club as a front for drug trafficking. For reasons in which Winding Refn reveals zero interest, Julian’s big brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and brutally murders a 16-year-old prostitute, sitting beside her with his head in his hands when cops come. At that point the film’s third major character is introduced, a senior police official named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who is both judge and executioner, his priestly appearance in marked contrast to his ruthlessness with his sword and fists. Making pronouncements on justice with God-like authority, he orders the dead girl’s father to punish her killer, which means curtains for Billy. While the film doesn’t stint on bloodshed, Winding Refn plays much of this early carnage at least partially off-camera.

En route to the inevitable showdown between Julian and Chang, Winding Refn orchestrates dreamy episodes of almost cartoonish violence and killing, punctuated by surreal moments in which Chang performs syrupy pop karaoke before a reverent audience of police officers. As much as Drive was defined by its sleek, color-saturated images of Los Angeles, Only God Forgives owes its ominous mood in part to cinematographer Larry Smith’s impeccably composed camerawork, its chiaroscuro field of murky shadow and viscerally bloody hues captured in gorgeously snaky slow pans and tracking shots. Smith’s long association with Stanley Kubrick is acknowledged in unsettling images of hotel and sex-club corridors that appear to be an explicit nod to The Shining. The small handful of brief daylight scenes offer startling punctuation in a film that almost exclusively inhabits a dangerous nighttime world. MORE