At first glance, Only God Forgives, director Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to his highly acclaimed 2011 crime drama Drive, appears to be more of the same: Ryan Gosling once again stars as a man of few words who gets dragged into the criminal underworld, with Bangkok replacing Los Angeles this time.
Ten minutes in, though, you realize that the new movie is an entirely different beast — a more primal, brutal, near-plotless experience.
“There’s a record I really love called Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed,” Refn says. “It’s an album he made after Transformer, which was a wonderful, lyrical record. But with Metal Machine Music, what you hear is what you get — just guitar feedback mixed at different speeds. I thought it would be interesting to make a film that worked in a similar way, a movie almost designed like a pin-up magazine that was purely about what arouses me and what frightens me.”
Like Reed’s record, the result is much less accessible than Refn’s previous films. Only God Forgives, which opens Friday, co-stars Kristin Scott Thomas as Gosling’s monstrous mother and Vithaya Pansringarm as a cop who metes out justice like an avenging angel. The movie was booed by some critics when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, the same place where Refn won the Best Director prize for Drive two years earlier. Among the most common complaints was the film was laughably pretentious, hollow and needlessly violent.
“A lot of people have seen the film and immediately dismissed it,” says Thomas, whose flamboyantly evil character was designed as a cross between Lady Macbeth and Donatella Versace. “But then they wake up the next morning, and the movie is still in their heads. People watch movies on different levels, but the surface level of this one is not the most interesting. It’s a film that needs a great deal of personal interpretation. It has this way of getting into your head, because it’s so beautiful but also so frightening. If you can give into it and stop worrying about plot and stuff like that, you will have an amazing experience.”
Thomas, who is usually cast in tony, upscale dramas ( The English Patient, Gosford Park), admits she initially thought her agent had made a mistake when he sent her the script and she read it. But she took the role after watching some of Refn’s previous films, including Bronson and Valhalla Rising. Her volcanic performance as a manipulative, demanding shrew with a voracious sense of entitlement and no redeeming qualities is unlike any she’s given before.
“It was hard to play, because she is so outrageous and unpleasant and horrible,” Thomas says of her character. “There is a scene in which Ryan meets me at a restaurant for dinner and brings a prostitute as his date. Nicolas said we needed something really horrible for me to say to her. He asked us ‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever heard someone say to describe a woman?’ Ryan suggested that word [a profane sexual slur]. But I couldn’t say it. I just couldn’t. I kept flubbing the line, and we had to do multiple takes. You start feeling down when you have to be mean to people all the time. I wanted to have something nice to say!”