There are a lot of great-looking films all crowding for attention - and awards - at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, as well as a multitude of projects being pitched in the hope of finding a financier. Amongst the favorites to win in the main competition are Jim Jarmusch's independent vampire romance, Only Lovers Left Alive, François Ozon's coming-of-age tale, Jeune et Jolie, and Steven Soderbergh's period drama, Behind the Candelabra.
Going up against these titles and many more is Nicolas Winding Refn's Thai boxing crime-thriller, Only God Forgives, for which the director once again teamed up with star Ryan Gosling in the pairing that made their last joint venture - Drive - a favorite of critics and audiences a like. But has Refn been able to strike gold twice? After all, Drive didn't win hearts universally, and quite a few people were turned off by the director's slow, idiosyncratic style and Gosling's impenetrable stoicism.
As always, you should definitely watch the film for yourself to decide, since all of the trailers and stills for Only God Forgives have suggested that it will be a fascinating watch that should be judged on its own merits. While we wait for a more general release, however, here's a round-up of the early critic reactions, hot off the press after the premiere this week. In short? This film will make a lot of people very happy, and a lot of people very angry (see again: Drive).
A lot of the vitriol - and a fair portion of the praise - apparently stems from the fact that Refn's film is extremely violent. There was a sense, even in the red-band trailers, that the full scope of the film's brutality was being kept behind a curtain, and the reactions include corroborative accounts of quite a few audience members booing loudly or walking out in disgust. At least it's better than walking out due to boredom:
"Only God Forgives prompts early exits and a chorus of boos. Refn's film is bloated, corpulent and borderline repulsive – yet there's something magnificent about it just the same... Refn's beast is sick and corroded and all set to die."
"It may not win the Palme D'Or, but it could win the Walkout D'Or, a gold trophy of a cinema-seat banged up into the upright position... Only God Forgives will, understandably, have people running for the exits, and running for the hills."
The most common sentiment expressed is that of, "You're either going to love this film or hate it."
"Boy is it going to be divisive. More art film than drama, this is an immaculately constructed production where every shot is a masterpiece. Just try to look away."
"For many, it will be hard to look beyond the explicit violence and rather thinly drawn plot and characters, but there is much to enjoy and appreciate in the sheer cinematic verve, intelligence and elegance that makes Only God Forgives an immersive and brutally intriguing film."
"This film, Only God Forgives, is a single layer deep. There is nothing more to it... That hardly mattered to the crowd around me. Only God Forgives was met with applause by an audience that really wanted to see something risky in the sea of safe players offered up so far at the film festival. To that end, I can see why there was so much enthusiasm by this crowd afterwards. Refn wanted to make an obtuse, word-free tribute to the slicing off of limbs — and he’s done that. What it means ultimately will likely depend on your own thirst for such an exercise."
With a few of the reviews, it's difficult to tell whether the writer actually liked the film or not:
"Only God Forgives is a beautiful disaster. Really doesn't work in the slightest, but very happy it exists."
"Like exploitation enthusiast Quentin Tarantino, Refn is that rare lover of bad movies who also has the chops to elevate grindhouse material to the stature of art... The trouble is, he’s in such expert command of technique (reteaming with “Bronson” d.p. Larry Smith and “Drive” composer Cliff Martinez) that few will see beyond the surface."
In some cases, though, the hate is very unambiguous:
"Style over substance doesn’t really tell the half of it: you can bathe a corpse in groovy light and dress it in an expensive suit, but in the end that rotting smell just won’t go away."
"It's a shit macho fantasy - hyperviolent, ethically repulsive, sad, nonsensical, deathly dull, snail-paced, idiotic, possibly woman-hating, visually suffocating, pretentious. I realize I sound like Rex Reed on one of his rants, but trust me, please — this is a defecation by an over-praised, over-indulged director who thinks anything he craps out is worthy of your time. I felt violated, shat upon, sedated, narcotized, appalled and bored stiff."
Finally, some reviewers offered a more tempered analysis:
"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."
"Larry Smith's cinematography is superb, and his crisp, sometimes hallucinatory visuals are complimented by Cliff Martinez's thrumming score, which neatly fuses Thai instruments and local ballads to create an otherworldly fusion. The story itself is spare and simple, a platform for some very extreme and inventive violence. But the curious, ethereal mood ensures that nothing is especially sadistic or shocking, rather Only God Forgives is about violence in the way that Drive was about driving."
David Rooney - The Hollywood Reporter
"Gosling is not doing anything we haven’t seen from him before, but his sullen introspection is again perfectly attuned to the director’s sensibility, with moments of clairvoyant contemplation of his future suggesting a spiritual dimension to Julian. Pansringarm brings enough distinctive quirks to a stoical role to make him an original, morally ambiguous antagonist. And the bewitching Scott Thomas makes mesmerizing work of every minute of her screen time as a vicious screen bitch for the ages."
It's looking very unlikely that Refn will walk away from this festival with the Palme d'Or; Only God Forgives is simply too divisive and - looking objectively at all of the initial reactions - too flawed to beat out the other films in the main competition. All the same, it rankles a little to see a film criticized on the basis of being too violent - a criticism that is often found during attempts to distinguish between "high art" and "low art" or, more commonly, in the moral panics that surround violent video games or movies. As Oscar Wilde said in his preface (and defense) of The Picture of Dorian Gray, "Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art."
In a report that calls Only God Forgives "the biggest dud so far" and suggests that Ryan Gosling's non-presence was due to him being afraid of "a firing squad of disappointed journos" (he's actually busy filming his directorial debut, How to Catch a Monster, in Detroit), The Toronto Star quoted the following response from Refn, when questioned about the violence in the film at a press conference:
“Art is an act of violence. Art is about penetration… I approach things very much like a pornographer. It’s about what arouses me. And certain things turn me on more than other stuff, and I can’t suppress that… I have surely a fetish for violent emotion and violent images and I can’t explain where it comes from, but I believe through art, it is way to exorcise certain things in you."
It's understandable to be turned off by a movie simply because it it has too much in the way of blood and guts, but is it fair to call it a bad film simply because it's difficult to watch? You can find out which side of the fence you fall on when Only God Forgives is released this summer, but in the meantime, share your thoughts on these early reactions in the comments.
Only God Forgives is out in theaters on July 19, 2013.
Sources listed above.