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Cannes Review: ‘Only God Forgives’ Stretches Refn’s Neon-Noir Style Over Too Little Oedipal, Amoral Substance

Cannes Review: 'Only God Forgives' Stretches Refn's Neon-Noir Style Over Too Little Oedipal, Amoral Substance

With the weight of expectation behind it, Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” was never going to be able to deliver the same neon blue jolt of surprise that thrilled through the 2011 Cannes crowd at the first screening of “Drive.” But the audience in attendance today was prepped and primed, and practically salivating, for something that looked a little like “Drive 2” — reuniting Refn with star Ryan Gosling in a similarly taciturn role, and also with that reflective black and fizzing blue/red aesthetic that’s as heady and addictive as a drug to the director’s fans (among whom we number ourselves, of course). This is probably a good example of “be careful what you wish for,” as “Only God Forgives” delivers what we might have thought we wanted but with diminishing returns: Refn’s trademark visual style is indulged to a dizzying degree (to an almost self-parodic extreme in the early stages) but is unmoored, lacking any kind of satisfying or coherent narrative throughline. Where “Drive” looked similarly amazing, it was in addition oddly affecting and poetic in its narrative arc; this film has the twisted, dreamlike, cool vibe in spades, but it makes only a late bid for our real engagement.

Refn has made a name for himself with spartan narratives, but there’s maybe even less story on offer here than before, and what there is feels kind of crammed into the last third of the film. Lack of story is itself not necessarily a problem — take “Valhalla Rising,” probably this writer’s personal favorite of Refn’s. But where ‘Rising’ paired its stripped-back plot with a stripped-back look and felt lean and economical and evocative as a result, here, with no truly relatable characters to compel us along between the occasional (glorious) fight or maiming scene, layers of style are lavished on in a threadbare plot a way that feels like they’re compensating for a lack. So people spend almost the first hour of this 90-minute movie gazing inscrutably offscreen at scenes that may or may not be a dream, or a premonition, or a thought, or a plan, when they aren’t walking around incredibly slowly, down ornately wallpapered corridors through dappled darkness.

And as minimalist as “Drive” was (sorry to compare the two again but it does feel like a just comparison), you felt you could at least read into the characters — that tiny shred of redemptive hope as represented by the Carey Mulligan character gave a moral context to Gosling’s Driver that is nearly missing from Julian (unless you count the not-killing of a small child as a massive triumph of decency, which, in the bleak demi-monde Refn creates here, it kind of is).

The film starts, or rather the story chronologically begins, with the repugnant Billy (Tom Burke), the scion of an American family who run a Thai boxing club as cover for a drug operation, raping and killing a 16 year-old Thai prostitute. The Police Captain (Vithaya Pansringarm) who turns up has a uniquely peremptory attitude to the dispensation of justice, and locks the semi-catatonic, bloodstained Billy in a room with the girl’s father who duly beats him to death. Billy’s death prompts his brother Julian (Ryan Gosling) to seek revenge, but not hotheadedly enough for his mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), who flies in from the States and assumes control of the family business as well as the business of avenging her elder (and clearly preferred) son’s death. The denouement is luridly oedipal, as more of the charming nature of that family’s dynamics are revealed, and as Crystal’s thirst for vengeance is eventually trumped only by her instinct for self-preservation.

Our overall disappointment aside, there are a lot of good elements. Kristin Scott Thomas, as advertised in the sneak preview, is wonderful as the snarling, acid anti-mother, and every one of her scenes crackles with the sheer electricity of her venality and corruption. But everything about her, from her image-upending look to her already-famous withering, foulmouthed language, to the way she can twitch on Julian’s line by offering him motherhood like a cookie, is so enlivening that we really miss her when she’s gone, and there’s not actually a huge amount of her (the dinner scene shown as a preview is probably her biggest moment).

Gosling feels oddly recessive here, as a more passive participant than we’re used to him being, but he should be congratulated for committing to the role of the near-mute Julian as he slowly, and gorily, overcomes his mommy issues, especially considering he doesn’t even have Driver’s way with violence: the film’s centerpiece fight scene sees him totally outmatched. While we’re on the subject, the fights, the maimings, and the deaths are all pretty great: from an exposed rib cage to a beautifully shot death scene against a set of white-draped windows, the balletic grace of Refn’s choreography and compositions comes into its own when violence is involved. The film’s very best point is its music: the score is so wonderful and electro-lyrical and buzzy and synthy (and even occasionally BRAAM-y) that were a case made for Refn’s visuals simply being an accompaniment to a 90-minute track by Cliff Martinez we probably wouldn’t argue too hard.

But what does it all mean, and what does it all amount to? We can read the police captain, in his outfit that clearly references that of a boxing match referee, as the God of the title, or, indeed, the Devil who Billy refers to in an early scene — in this seedy limbo, there’s not a huge distinction between the two. In fact, if the devil’s in charge, doesn’t that pretty much make him God? And yes, the trajectory of the plot is such that it’s essentially a very belated coming-of-age tale (or rather a very, very late leaving-the-womb, cutting-the-cord tale) for Julian. But aside from these themes, there’s very little on offer here, and almost nothing in the way of emotional engagement. Refn has consistently delivered films in that have subverted our expectations, and has proven himself a master at stylistic self-reinvention, but this feels like the first time he’s gone back to any particular well. On paper, “Only God Forgives” is exactly the movie we might have wanted — a re-visitation to the dark, fetishistically violent world of “Drive,” with added local color and occasional, acid dialogue. Onscreen it’s that too: just that and no more. It makes us realize how we much we had come to subconsciously expect Refn to somehow change it up again and how silly of us that was.“Only God Forgives” is not the movie we hoped for, but it’s probably the movie we asked for instead. [B]

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Just watched it. Well this movie sucked in my opinion…


Drive won me over after a hard fought battle against my initial resistance of what I thought might have been exploitational and crass. It sounds like his new film may have succumbed to my worst worries about Drive. Amoral and violent is not something that appeals to my sensibilities at this moment in time.


This is the review I can agree with most. Saw Only God Forgives yesterday, reviewed it today (read it at and Jessica definitely addresses the correct point: little story, a lot of style. Still, the style is ab-so-lutely fantastic!


Interesting. Valhalla, so far, has been the only Refn movie I haven't liked. From this review I am getting the feeling I am really going to like Only God Forgives.


I kind of liked Drive, I thought the story was too thin for my taste but the GREAT cast and music/style made is very watchable. It also had some really beautiful moments (the kiss in the elevator for instance) so all in all it was a generic crimestory that was upgraded by some artistic flourishes if you will. It worked for the most part.
However, I saw Only God Forgives two days ago, and it is terrible. It's self-indulgent, flat-out boring and completely without class and any real depth whatsoever. It's Refn trying to pose as an artistic auteur, while he is actually making nothing more than violence porn. Many pretentious filmstudents will love it.


I am still unsure what would have caused the boos. OGF is too bleak? that's the big criticism? Gosling's Driver was not a character with any backstory, and his redemptive elements were pretty surface–looking out for the innocent woman and child. I liked Drive for its stylized visuals and simple narrative, but I don't think Drive is an exercise in sympathetic characters. Also, I don't understand this reviewer's insistence that OGF needs "hope."


I am still unsure what would have caused the boos. OGF is too bleak? that's the big criticism? Gosling's Driver was not a character with any backstory, and his redemptive elements were pretty surface–looking out for the innocent woman and child. I liked Drive for its stylized visuals and simple narrative, but I don't think Drive is an exercise in sympathetic characters. Also, I don't understand this reviewer's insistence that OGF needs "hope."


Why did you give Only God Forgives a rotten rating on Rottentomatoes with a B review? how does that make sense?


You got to expect a few duds . Only god forgives. The necessary death of charlie countryman. Melancholia. Valhalla rising. Lars von trier self described porno film Nymphomania opens on Christmas day. It has real porn actors in it. Their lower halves having real sex with digitally grafted visual upper halves for Stellan Skarsgard, Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Connie Nielsen, Shia Labeouf (star of Charlie Countryman who was willing to have real sex in this movie) Jamie Bell etc. Sounds like a sure fire winner for movie of the year. At Cannes. Next year.


I also saw the movie at Cannes, and I think there is a pretty great subtext/theme about getting out of a cycle of violence that I can't talk too much more about without with giving up the game. But I think got a lot more out of it than Jess. That said, a B is pretty fair — I mighta gone B+.


Hey Playlist you guys should do one of your list articles in honor of Gosling, actors who suffered backlash after repeating an iconic performance, rate them on scales of similarity, what happened to them afterwards etc (not that I put myself in the category of people calling him out on this, Drive and Pines really don't feel all that similar to me except both characters are good at driving automobiles).

Adam Scott Thompson

Still high for it.


Obviously it's still a bit early but does Kristin Scott Thomas stand a chance for Best Actress at the Oscars?


God, I love when Ryan Gosling continually flops. He's the WORST.


Thank the heavens above, his 15 minutes are almost over. That was a looooooong 15 minutes. Endless. Painful.


Oxerexposure KILLS you. The fall cometh for Gosling has begun. He has to go back to Half Nelson/Lars basics now.


Lol. Gosling's pr squad is working overtime on this one. And it's an absolute necessity, because without his internet pr team he would not have a career. If you will notice, DiCaprio has adopted the model.


I sure hope u r right about the violence and gore being good. That's the main reason I want to see this film. Drives action was pretty cool but from the clips I've seen of OGF, it looks kinda silly. For one thing, there is no way some 60 year old guy with a belly would beat Gosling in hand to hand combat. I can't believe u say he is easily bested. When I saw the clip of the police captain running after the guy who tried to shoot him, I burst out laughing because the guy could barely even jog. Between that scene and then the one of Gosling pulling the guy from by the mouth, which is also stupid, I have my doubts about this films level of violence. Also, since when does the police care about a dead prostitute? And if her dad cared so much about her, why was she a whore?


Most of the people who will see this movie and love it are the ones that enjoy his movies for exactly what they are. Violent, gorgeously stylistic, dark themes and a great soundtrack. Which is exactly how the author of this post has referred it to be. The fact is Drive doesn't have to be a masterpiece and neither does this film. Refn doesn't owe anybody anything. In the end they're certain types of movies for certain types of people. The people who will enjoy this most likely enjoyed Drive, Valhalla Rising and Bronson. You can bash Gosling or Refn all you want but he still continues to make a damn good entertaining films. This, of course is only my opinion, but I think most of the commenters on here are more or less annoyed that other people appreciate his work for what it is. You didn't get what you were expecting and suddenly it becomes appropriate to say words like pretentious and overrated which essentially says a lot about you.


There's no doubt in my mind the problem here is that expectations were way too high. With Refn I always think about the scene in Drive where Albert Brooks tells Driver that he used to produce B-movies. 'One critic called them European, I thought they shit'. I feel like this little snippet is extremely telling of a certain aspect of Refn's views on filmmaking/sensibilities and also serves as a clue on how his work should be viewed. The pleasures are trashy because merit is pretentious, but that doesn't mean the pleasures aren't real, that his images don't have real feeling or power. Most of his movies are just glorified B-movies that periodically reach into the realm of art-house and whats wrong with that, really? A lot of his movies don't have super-relatable characters or tons of feeling but they're still dazzling to behold and fun stories to see played out (Bronson and the entire Pusher trilogy feels this way for me). Everything on the criticism chopping block here sounds like stuff that was already a foregone complaint (which Jessica even acknowledges here), which is fair I suppose but it's annoying to hear people foaming at the mouth with hatred against a movie (which they haven't even seen yet) or an actor, out of petty, pre-determined predjudice and not because of the actual work in question (although I guess this is what I do with Zach Braff haha). Anyways point being I'm still excited to see this. and everyone needs to chill out till you've actually seen the movie.


Gosling has jumped the shark IMO. The media/internet (the stupid "Hey Girl" memes) have really ruined him. He just isn't the star they're so desperately trying to make him into.


Coming out on VOD the same day as theaters? Yup, it sucks.

Looks like even the critics who were so dedicated in overpraising Gosling are now sick of him and his shtick.


Looks like Gosling has gone 0-for-3 this year with the awful GS, the mediocre disappointing Pines, and now this. What happened to his career and script choices? Looks like he's finally been outed for the mediocre actor he perhaps always was.


Yer, an idiot.


No one is surprised. Drive was arthouse light for the teeny bopper generation. Refn's pedigree before the film was average at best and will continue to be after he stops trying to emulate the success of Drive which baffles me to this day.


It's official. Kristen Scott Thomas has more balls than Gosling. She actually showed up to hear her movie get booed. Kudos to her. That's a pro.


I was lucky enough to so the screening and I was stunned. This is the NEW clockwork orange for the 21st century. Sure people will hate it at first (wait till you hear the backlash to the glorious violence) but this will be hailed as one of the finest films ever made. Oh and the cinamatography by larry smith (Kubricks old DP) was jaw dropping , best I have ever seen. Music is embedded into the film similar to how the score on inception played a key role to the film. The score by cliff Martinez , is a majestic blending of an infusion of electric pop and classical music.

In summary, the best way to descibe this film is as a surreal modern hyper violent western set in Asia, directed by a combo of lynch,Malick and kubrick aesthetics.

–translated from French

oogle monster

It seems this reviewer is trying to convince themselves the film is better than it is really is..? Most reviews thus far have been pretty mixed. This read as a C or C-.


I am really starting to think Gosling must be paying an ad agency to prop him up on these web sites. The comment from Michael M is nothing short of ridiculous.

Michael M.

I'm sure this film will leave a much more endearing legacy behind than the Palme' Winner itself. Lol @ pathetic trolls obviously infuriated with Refn and Gosling. Trolls will always be trolls, and take a chance at insulting FAR more intellectual, successful, creative and attractive individuals. Haha as if any of you trolls know what good cinema is. Maybe I should redirect you towards the blockbuster section.


Uhm. If Indiewire gives a Gosling film only a B and not an A++++, we can safely assume that OGF will definitely not be included in the 'must-see' category. However, we can also assume that they have been very generous in their review nevertheless.


Jessica, you may seriously be my favourite writer at The Playlist — what an incisive and well-written piece on the foibles of high expectations. I'm still very excited to see this, because I inadvertently came across an early draft of the script and know more or less what to expect in terms of plot (or lack thereof), but retain hopes that the Refn and the cast are nevertheless capable of some sort of transcendence over the thinly sketched plot.


Total Film calls it a failure.


Gosling ALWAYS relies on his co-stars to give his characters meaning. Hopefully this apparently rather mediocre film will put the hype to sleep. The emperor has no clothes, people. Did Gangsters not ably demonstrate that?


for those of us who didnt think drive was even close to being the masterpiece it's hailed as i think this will do nicely


Wow my high expectations were pegged down a bit after reading this review, but looks like The Guardian gave it 5/5 stars!! There goes my expectations again…



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