CANNES – 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.
Enter Crystal, who flies in from the States, aggrieved and ill-tempered, to retrieve the body of her beloved first-born son. Her gellid dismissal of the hotel desk clerk who informs her that her suite is not ready will be a vicarious thrill for anyone who has ever been rankled by check-in attitude after a tiring flight.
In a deliciously nasty scene that has already sparked excited chatter following a Weinstein Co. slate preview at Cannes, Julian convinces erotic dancer Mai (Rhatha Phongam) to pose as his girlfriend and accompany him to meet Mom. Crystal’s withering assessment of her packs a sting, but it’s nothing compared to her emasculation of Julian, right down to an unfavorable penis-size comparison with his late sibling. Informed of Billy’s savage crimes, she shrugs, “I’m sure he had his reasons.” Basically, Crystal needles Julian to man up and bring her the head of his brother’s killer on a platter. But beyond the flamboyant presentation, this is strictly generic Oedipal stuff.
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.
Production designer Beth Mickle captures the various faces of Bangkok, from its clogged cityscape to its seedy backstreets. She creates particularly striking settings in the austere luxury of Crystal’s hotel, the cavernous space of the boxing club, the lurid bordello chic of the sex club where Mai works and the over-the-top kitsch of the karaoke bars.
Matthew Newman’s editing mirrors the languid fluidity of the visuals. And composer Cliff Martinez again makes an indispensable contribution to Winding Refn’s defining aesthetic with a richly textured score that combines pounding martial arts drumbeats, bursts of ecclesiastical organ music, lushly romantic orchestral riffs that recall Pino Donaggio’s work for Brian De Palma, and obsessive techno beats that at times evoke the vintage electropop of Giorgio Moroder.
Gosling is not doing anything we haven’t seen from him before, but his sullen introspection is again perfectly attuned to the director’s sensibility, with moments of clairvoyant contemplation of his future suggesting a spiritual dimension to Julian. Pansringarm brings enough distinctive quirks to a stoical role to make him an original, morally ambiguous antagonist. And the bewitching Scott Thomas makes mesmerizing work of every minute of her screen time as a vicious screen bitch for the ages.
The Thai-language title sequences are just one indication that Winding Refn is embarking on the kind of cine-cultural scavenger hunt that Quentin Tarantino has undertaken with far greater depth and diligence. But while Only God Forgives could be accused of shallowness and lack of psychological complexity, for the target audience, it will be wicked cool entertainment.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition; Radius/Weinstein Co.; July 19)
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Rhantha Phongam, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke
Production companies: Space Rocket Nation, Motel Movies Productions, in association with Bold Films
Director-screenwriter: Nicolas Winding Refn
Producers: Lene Borglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent Maraval
Executive producers: Ryan Gosling, Christophe Riandee, Brahim Chioua, Tom Quinn, Jason Janego, Michel Litvak, David Lancaster, Gary Michael Walters, Matthew Read, Thor Sigurjonsson, Yves Chevalier
Director of photography: Larry Smith
Production designer: Beth Mickle
Music: Cliff Martinez
Editor: Matthew Newman
Costume designer: Wasitchaya “Nampeung” Mochanakul
Sales: Wild Bunch
R rating, 90 minutes.