CANNES, France — Only God Forgives: unforgettable? More like unforgivable. Back in 2011, Nicolas Winding Refn’s first outing with Hollywood hunk Ryan Gosling resulted in the suave, rapturous crime thriller Drive, which premiered here in Cannes and nabbed the Danish filmmaker the prize for Best Director. So expectations were not unreasonably high for this year’s hotly awaited competition entry Only God Forgives, their latest team effort about a revenge killing in the seedy Thai underworld, which played this morning to a breathless 8:30 a.m. audience. The result? Sensory shock and awe, followed by a narrative stupor, then capped with a heavy chorus of boos.
Those expecting another smoldering Steve McQueen impression from Mr. Gosling won’t recognize the inscrutable tabula rasa he plays here named Julian, a near-catatonic scion from a drug matriarchy headed by blood-thirsty drug trafficking villainess Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, the film’s only shining light in a gleefully profane black widow role). The whisper of a plot concerns Mr. Gosling’s older brother Billy (Tom Burke), who is murdered after raping and killing a 16-year-old. (“I’m sure he had his reasons,” sighs Crystal.) Mommy wants retribution (ideally someone’s head on a plate), and Mr. Gosling does his bloody but emasculated best to oblige. The only hitch is having to face down demonic (or is he deific?) retired police chief Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), an angel of death who acts as judge, jury and executioner to all the city’s scum and revels in sword-swinging mayhem before serenading the local cops with a round of karaoke.
The eccentricities would be endearing—even profound—if the film didn’t work so hard to make its characters so opaque. Cliff Martinez’s ominous drones accompany lovingly composed tableaux vivants of the actors, frozen in stately repose or glaring with smoldering intensity while bathed in crimson light and framed against opulent wallpaper designs. But cool poses do not a movie make. (Although it could be the basis of a fantastic coffee table book.) On paper, the film is a cunning inversion of the hero/villain trope, where justice prevails even though one’s sympathies may veer towards the crooks. But Mr. Refn wants to eschew genre and meditate on the metaphysical. Problem is, those moments of contemplation are empty vessels without a developed sense of emotional conflict.
Mr. Gosling, tellingly, was nowhere in sight. Cannes topper Thierry Fremaux made a rare appearance at the press conference to hand-deliver a message of regret from the heartthrob, who hailed Mr. Refn and insisted on his pride in the film. “He was unable to catch a plane yesterday,” said Mr. Fremaux. Indeed.
No matter, anyway: the film’s greatest thrill is Ms. Thomas, whose monstrous mother is a deliciously welcome addition to her formidable gallery of sophisticated roles. “This kind of film is really not my thing,” said Ms. Thomas at the film’s press conference. “But what appealed to me was working with Nicolas.”
Mr. Refn laughed at his star’s ability to embody such rough stuff. “She had no problem turning on the bitch switch,” he said. And one of the film’s highlights is watching her call someone a “cum-dumpster” (a pejorative suggested, remarkably enough, by Mr. Gosling). “It took me about eight takes to pronounce that word,” said Ms. Thomas. “Can you do it now?” ribbed Mr. Refn. “No,” she replied, with an icy smile.
Ms. Thomas has good thespian company here in Cannes: Robert Redford also offered up a brave, admirably physical performance today in the single-person adventure drama All Is Lost, the latest from J.C. Candor (Margin Call), which features the Sundance founder as lone voyager on a leaky yacht stuck 1700 miles away from civilization who must fight the elements as they slowly erode his hope of survival. With no other actors in sight, the septuagenarian actor is in almost every single frame; and while the man-against-nature spectacle doesn’t completely maintain its intensity, Mr. Redford himself is never less than engaging, endearing and frankly just plain engrossing. The Oscars just got put on notice.