When Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn brought his Ryan Gosling-starring thriller “Drive” to the Cannes competition two years ago, he earned largely rave reviews and a directing prize. It remains to be seen what this year’s Steven Spielberg-led jury makes of the latest Refn-Gosling joint, “Only God Forgives,” but the critical reception is in, and so far it ain’t pretty. A nasty, hyperviolent thriller set around Bangkok’s seedy brothels and boxing rings, the film was booed at its press screening earlier this morning, countered (as boos often are) by defiant shouts of “Bravo!” and scattered applause, indicating pockets of support.
Vapid, nihilistic exercises in style are often ripe for jeers in a competition as prestigious as this one, and Refn’s latest in particular owes a strong stylistic debt to his filmmaking mentor Gaspar Noe (he’s thanked in the end credits), himself something of a Cannes-boo specialist after shocking festival-goers with the likes of “Irreversible” and “Enter the Void.” It’s worth noting that Cannes audiences have booed their fair share of masterpieces as well, most famously Antonioni’s “L’avventura,” and that a film’s fest reception isn’t necessarily an indicator of how it will be greeted down the road.
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Still, those of us who sat through Refn’s visually arresting but distressingly empty thriller (aptly described by my colleague Peter Debruge as “an exercise in supreme style and minimal substance”) had our worst suspicions confirmed, based on early rumors that “Only God Forgives” had been slotted in competition at the producers’ insistence. Festival programmers had originally thought to put it in Midnight Screenings or the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, where it would no doubt have been greeted with less hostility.