You never quite know when the notoriously feisty press corps will boo a big movie at Cannes. It’s only clear that at some point, it will happen. Last year, I saw and was hypnotized by the dreamy Post Tenebras Lux — a movie that went on to win the jury’s Best Director award, mind you — and my reverie was broken when the movie ended and my seatmate led an unexpected, theater-wide chorus of jeers. This year, it’s hard to find a single person who likes the Billy Crudup–Clive Owen cop saga Blood Ties or the totally enervating Benicio Del Toro drama Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian), and yet both of those media screenings still ended with polite, muted applause.
Well, the wait is over.
Many of us walked into today’s press screening of Only God Forgives with high hopes: The film reunites impish director Nicolas Winding Refn with Drive star Ryan Gosling, and a clip from the movie played to great effect last week at Harvey Weinstein’s Cannes footage presentation (his company Radius-TWC will be distributing the film this summer). Last time Refn was on the Croisette with Drive, he was the toast of the fest and he, too, won the Best Director laurel. You should never underestimate the willingness of Cannes jurors to go their own way, but to judge from the boos and whistles after the Only God Forgives screening today, I wouldn’t exactly lay odds on a Best Director repeat for Refn.
Once again, Gosling plays a buffed-up criminal of few words — by the half-hour mark, I think he’d delivered two lines at most — who spends his time staring blankly at either the men he’s about to beat up or the woman he feels longing for but can’t quite possess (here played by young ingenue Yayaying Rhatha Phongam). It might as well be Drive or Place Beyond the Pines all over again, just in a different setting — this time, a claustrophobic, seedy area of Bangkok lit almost exclusively by lights so red and lurid that it takes you a while to notice that most of the characters are covered in blood. Gosling’s Julian runs a boxing ring and deals drugs on the side, and while he’s no prize, his brother Billy (Tom Burke) is worse, a criminal seething with evil who’s murdered after he himself rapes and kill a teen prostitute. That act barely fazes Julian, but it does impel his monstrous mother, a truly fierce Kristin Scott Thomas, to fly to Bangkok in order to coax Julian into a misguided, doomed revenge mission.
What follows is a whole lot of ultra-violence, and while Drive had its memorably bloody moments, there’s no sweetness here to leaven things. When Gosling drags a guy across the hallway by his upper jaw, the audience cringed. When one painfully long torture sequence concluded with eye and ear mutilation, the audience revolted. When one character stuck his hand inside a woman’s slashed body, the audience locked and loaded its boos. Gosling doesn’t have much to say in this movie, but the auditorium sure did.
That said, there is one element of the movie that seemed to work for everybody: Kristin Scott Thomas as the mother from hell, a character Refn has described as “Lady Macbeth crossed with Donatella Versace.” She’s a vicious hoot, and in a movie where all the other actors are practically somnambulant, it’s a relief to watch Scott Thomas stride into each scene and quickly cut her co-stars to shreds. Watch this clip — the movie’s unambiguous highlight — for a taste of her breathtakingly cruel character. This is how she earned her title as the baddest bitch: She’s seen Ryan Gosling’s penis, and she was not impressed.
Yes, Kristin Scott Thomas just said “cum dumpster.”
“She had no problem turning on the bitch switch,” Refn said at the press conference following the film. “It’s quite frighteningly easy!” agreed Scott Thomas.
Refn credits his actors with the scene’s outrageous content. “We shared an apartment, Ryan and I,” he said. “We would sit and say, ‘God, what could be interesting for a mother [to say] to humiliate her son?’ And we started talking about our cocks. And when two guys talk about their cocks, it becomes very masculine, but when you suddenly have your mother talking about it, it becomes extremely un-masculine.”
But once they got on set, Scott Thomas still felt like something was missing from the scene. “It suddenly seemed like we were beating around the bush, so to speak,” she said, instructing Refn: “Let’s say the worst possible things. The nightmare things, that only come out after dark. Why don’t we just get those out on the table?”
“I remember asking Ryan, ‘What’s the worst thing you can call a woman in America?’” said Refn cheerfully. “And he kind of said, ‘Oh, call her cum-dumpster.’”
“I couldn’t say that word,” laughed Scott Thomas. “It actually took me about eight takes to actually pronounce that word.”
“Can you do it now?” Refn asked.
Scott Thomas channeled all her hauteur into a single-word response: “No.”
With additional reporting by Jada Yuan.