Cannes 2013: Bloody, Nasty Revenge in Refn's 'Only God Forgives'
by Alex Billington
May 22, 2013
Tarantino is out, Refn is in. At the start of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, it opens with the Klingon Proverb, "Revenge is a dish best served cold." Back in the 90s, Tarantino was leading the genre game in Cannes, winning the Palme d'Or for Pulp Fiction. While he's still making great films today, the next generation has tagged in. In 2011, Nicolas Winding Refn rocked the Croisette with the film Drive and he has returned this year to premiere Only God Forgives. Starring Ryan Gosling again this artsy, slow burn, extremely violent Bangkok-set revenge drama is a dish definitely served cold, with a slice of style and minor substance.
Only God Forgives isn't that comparable to much of Nicolas Winding Refn's past work, even Drive, aside from maybe the structure and themes in Valhalla Rising or Fear X. That said, I believe Refn is one of the craziest, most creative, edgiest artistic filmmakers working today and his violent, slow-burn style is exactly what makes him so unique. He's pretty much taking a Thailand martial arts B-movie and turning it into modern "Cinema Refn". While the story is seemingly meaningless, Refn embeds so much into his shot and so much to chew on regarding "what could this mean?" or "why did he do that?" there's no way it could be meaningless. However, the meaning could be totally crazy and random and not overly satisfying. So be it.
Having read Refn's "director's statement" about the film and his desire "to make a movie about a man who wants to fight God", I knew going into Only God Forgives that an interpretation of this idea might be what we'd see, told through the lens of Refn. But I got into it, I was along for the ride, every slow-moving second of it, every last slice, stab, scream and cringe-worthy moment. Gosling stars as Julian, a kickboxer/drug dealer living in Bangkok, Thailand who ends up starting a fight with a sword-wielding police liaison named Chang, played by Vithaya Pansringarm, after his sadistic brother ends up dead. Refn gets to let loose in Thailand with the story and his violence, and creates a sleek but vile revenge flick that will divide audiences.
It's a film that may certainly have style over substance, but I really believe the substance is in each frame, every last pixel of every last second. Refn is a master of controlling the frame and everything in every frame is meant to be seen, meant to be processed, he wouldn't let anything slip by without reason, without being fully thought through. That same kind of thought should be put into the film itself, despite its bargain bin-esque feel. It may seem like all style but as you try to pull back the layers there's more to be found even if it's just crazy ass ideas from Refn's mind. But I'm more than happy to see more from his mind, just for the visual world he captures. It's dark, but looks great, with gorgeous shots and slow but effective movements.
One of the negative statements I saw on twitter after the premiere said this film would be in the bargain bin in a few years if it didn't have Gosling in it. While I agree, to me that's not a bad thing, as weird as that sounds. I love that it's stylized Refn Thailand shlock. I love that it embraces its weirdness, its metaphors and bigger ideas veiled by style, even its slowness. The score by Cliff Martinez, which is haunting and epic and so moody, is his best score yet and adds so much to the experience. Actor Vithaya Pansringarm will earn cult genre status from this because he's so badass. There's something about it that I totally bought into. I came out as hyped as when I went in, and was ready to jump back in for Round 2 if only they'd let me see it again.
There's no doubt this film will leave many upset, frustrated and let down, but if you know what you're going into and are a fan of Refn's crazy violent, crazy weird style, it's a fucked up but remarkable experience. This is exactly the kind of film I would've loved to stumble across in the back of a video store on VHS, rented a thousand times over, to share with friends for the absurdity and unrestrained savagery. It kicks ass on those levels and yet still touches on ideas of religion, society and violence begetting violence. Cinema Refn reigns!
Alex's Cannes Rating: 8 out of 10