If protracted eye-gouging, torture facilitated by steel chopsticks, the brutal and thoroughly gratuitous murder of prostitutes, ponderous camera movements and a semi-catatonic performance by Ryan Gosling sound like fun, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives might be the movie you’ve been waiting for.
Refn’s film, which premiered Wednesday at Cannes, received, at least at the press screening, the heartiest boos so far of any Competition entry. It seems destined to please only the most ardent fans of the Danish director (he won the festival’s 2011 Best Director prize for Drive). It’s true that judiciously deployed violence has distinguished a number of brilliant genre films, particularly from Asia, in recent years. Unfortunately, Only God Forgives lacks any of the playfulness, not to mention the coherence, of stellar thrillers by, among others, Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike, Johnnie To, and Bong-Joon-ho; films by Mikke and To—not representative, alas, of their best work, are also featured in this year’s edition of Cannes.
Even at a mere 90 minutes, Refn’s convoluted tale progresses languorously. Julian Hopkins (supposedly an Englishman, although you would never know it from Gosling’s speech patterns) is a Bangkok boxing entrepreneur whose real wealth is derived from heroin trafficking. When his brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and murders a prostitute, a retired policeman named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) seeks to implement justice singlehandedly and engages Julian in a battle of wits. After hearing of Billy’s horrific crime, the boys’ mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a blonde matriarch clad in designer dresses and herself a drug queenpin, surfaces in Thailand and attempts to defend her son’s honor and protect her business holdings. Scott Thomas appears to be having a grand old time playing this evil matriarch. Her loopy tirades, especially a monologue in which she gleefully compares the length of her sons’ penises, provide this dreary movie’s only comic relief. (In a recently posted interview with Scott Thomas, it’s claimed that Refn “conceived her character” as a fusion of Lady Macbeth and Donatella Versace; he might have added Ma Barker.)
It would also be tempting to accuse Refn of proffering stale clichés about the “mysterious East” by choosing the seedier neighborhoods of Bangkok as the backdrop of this misfire. But, as Kong Rithdee, the chief film critic for the Bangkok Post, observed in an email, although it’s true that “Only God Forgives depicts Bangkok as an Orientalist fantasy,” the “clichés are pushed to such a delirious level,” that they can’t even be taken seriously.
Equally cliché-ridden, another Competition entry, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which screened for the press on Thursday, is a more benignly manipulative trifle. While the blood flows freely in Refn’s movie, Nebraska is awash in sentimentality. Shot in widescreen black and white to telegraph Payne’s earnestness, this enervating road movie focuses on Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an elderly alcoholic, seemingly in the early stages of dementia, who is convinced, without looking at the fine print, that he’s won a million dollars in a sweepstakes sponsored by a Nebraska publisher. Energized by the prospect of newfound wealth, he goads his wary son David (Will Forte, known to audiences for Saturday Night Live and How I Met Your Mother) to embark on a road trip from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the illusory booty. His exasperated wife Kate (June Squibb, also featured in Payne’s About Schmidt) eventually tags along. The contours of the journey allow Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson to make many sentimental detours along the way, especially an excursion back to Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska.
Proving that even if you can go home again you shouldn’t, the Hawthorne sojourn is replete with folksy Midwestern vignettes, as well as a bona fide villain, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach)—Woody’s former business partner who threatens violent retribution if he doesn’t receive some lucre from the chimerical sweepstakes payoff. Glimpses of the town’s economic devastation reinforce suspicions that Payne is commenting on the fallout in the heartland from the Great Recession. But the director is actually more interested in eliciting cheap laughs than in extended social commentary. Some intermittent guffaws can in fact be derived from Squibb’s racy anecdotes recounting how she found it necessary to fend off the advances of every other boy in town during her high school years. The antics of Woody’s nephews, who Payne seems to introduce as emblems of rural idiocy, are considerably less amusing.
The performance of Bruce Dern, an iconic actor of the 1970s, makes Nebraska’s wan charms endurable. Known for playing oddballs in landmark exploitation films by Roger Corman, as well as leading roles in prestigious features such as Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), he was the quintessential “indie” actor of the pre-Sundance era. Still vibrant at 76, he is a wonder playing a man utterly unlike himself. It’s a pity that he isn’t starring in a more compelling movie.