Like a thwacked piñata, critical opinion for something provocative at a film festival can swing off in any direction. But it was, for me, surprising to find that one of the very best movies at Cannes this year had such a shrill and hostile reception. Nicolas Winding Refn’s brilliant, macabre and ultraviolent anti-revenge movie Only God Forgives – his most interesting work since the Pusher trilogy in the Mads Mikkelsen era – was deafeningly denounced at its first screening. Some booed from their seats, cupping their hands around their mouths so that the sound carried that vital few yards further. Then came the nervy, brushfire social-media consensus – a new feature of criticism at festivals – as insecure pundits checked their Twitter feeds and committed themselves to derision, evidently taking Refn’s supposed failure to be the “story”, and in any case believing that something has to be seen to take a pasting if the praise-economy is not to go bankrupt. And all the while, middleweight products and franchise mediocrities are cordially waved through.
I can only say that Refn’s movie is entirely gripping, put together with lethal, formal brilliance, with bizarre setpieces of sentimentality and nauseous black comedy. It has its own miasma of anxiety and evil, taking place in a universe of fear, a place of deep-sea unreality in which you need to breathe through special gills – and through which the action swims at about 90% of normal speed through to its chilling conclusion. It is a kind of hallucinated tragi-exploitation shocker, an enriched uranium cake of pulp with a neon sheen.
The subject is expatriate American gangsters in a nightmarishly imagined Bangkok, self-exiled by traumatic family memories. Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a laconic tough guy who speaks hardly more than a paragraph’s worth of dialogue throughout the whole film. He runs a drug business under the cover of a Muay Thai boxing club, co-managed with his brother, Billy (Tom Burke), a violent and hate-filled misogynist whose grisly fate is to involve Julian in a strange metaphysical duel with Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), an enigmatic, samurai sword-wielding cop. The situation is made even more eerie and grotesque with the arrival of Julian’s exasperated mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), demanding acts of retributive violence. She is a widowed mob matriarch who knows very well what Julian can do: she is at once grateful and resentful and contemptuous, for reasons that emerge towards the end of the film, and which will make sense of Julian’s behaviour. He seems paralysed by something that can’t exactly be called conscience. With her icy-blue eyes ablaze – Julian’s eyes are the same – Crystal taunts and denounces him, like some mix of Gertrude and Lady Macbeth.
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