Published on July 30th, 2013 | by Allan Brown12
Only God Forgives Review
Running Time: 90 mins
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
Plot: Julian runs a Muay Thai Boxing club in Bangkok as a front for his family’s drug smuggling empire. When his brother Billy is killed for murdering a local prostitute, Julian finds himself drawn into a cycle of violence with the local police chief.
Only God Forgives marks the second collaboration between Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling. In 2011 the pair brought us the magnificent 80s retro action thriller, Drive. It was, and still is one of the few films that successfully managed to transcend the boundaries between Hollywood mainstream and the art-house market, effortlessly. The film went on to win the praise of critics, film enthusiasts and the causal audience respectively, a unique feat to say the least. With that said, let me make it abundantly clear, Only God Forgives is not Drive. Where the latter strived towards mainstream action and a traditional storytelling narrative, Only God Forgives is more a stylistic and surreal offering, awash with an abundance of symbolism and blazing neon metaphors throughout. To say it has both feet firmly placed in the art-house camp would surely be an understatement. So with that said, if the Hollywood heart throb is the main draw, Only God Forgives might not be your bag.
However, that is not to say one is more superior than the other as that would be like comparing apples and oranges or dog and cats.
The simple premise of only god forgives centres round a murder of frustrations, and like an atomic bombs blast, the shock waves of incrimination radiate outwards without signs of stopping. In this case, the bomb is played by English actor Tom Burke, who is first introduced to us at a crowded Bangkok Muay Thai boxing gym, run by his younger brother Julian (Gosling) as a front for his families drug trafficking empire. When Billy (Burke) his brother is killed in an act of revenge for murdering a local prostitute, his wicked mother Crystal (Kirsten Scott Thomas) jets in from America to quickly put the wheels of vengeance in motion.
Julian, sickened by his brother’s actions and hoping things will remain settled, finds himself through his mother’s persuasion, on a blood trail of retribution. But when that trail leads all the way to the local authorities, in particular the supernatural like presence of a Bangkok police lieutenant, Julian truly enters a battle of skill and of minds that he is unlikely to win.
Nicolas Winding Refn has stated time and time again that he is a fetish filmmaker, meaning he indulges himself by making the movies he would like to see. This time, Only God Forgives may present his most self-gratifying project to date.
On the surface Only God Forgives is presented like a silent western, where scenes and characters are mannered, where slow and awkward silences rain for prolonged periods, where almost ethereal characters stare out into nothingness for what seems like an eternity. These scenes like most of the film are shrouded in ambiguity and uncertainty. But again, this is Refn’s movie and while everyone involved seems to know what he is aiming for, we as an audience race to decipher the abundance of symbolism and visual metaphors played out in each scene which, for a full 90 minutes can be a tiring feat, but ultimately a very rewarding and unique cinematic experience.
In the art direction is where the film truly excels, thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut cinematographer Larry Smith, who manages to present the neon bathed sleaze of the Thai capital as both captivating and hypnotic, while the violence on screen reaches new levels of unflinching macabre.
This is Refn’s movie and while everyone involved seems to know what he is aiming for, we as an audience race to decipher the abundance of symbolism and visual metaphors
Many will as they already have squawk at the lack of any real narrative or dialogue to hold the film together, and I agree at times it feels does feel rather stagnant and devoid of any. There is also very little dialogue throughout and this too presents the issue of us never really getting to know any of our characters, all of whom may possibly be thematic and symbolic representations of what’s going on in Julian’s unsettled mind. As a result this too presents the question, how many of the scenes are actually fantasies or battles played out in Julian’s head, again we never know and no suggestions are strong enough to give a definitive answer so, instead we are left to draw our own conclusions to almost every scene in the film. However, if you scratch the surface there is a lot going on thematically and symbolically in the subtext than the immediate simplistic narrative implies.
Only God Forgives Themes (Spoilers)
There are many complex themes explored throughout Only God Forgives however, the main themes I grasped, all be it in the subtext, deal with Masculinity, Authority, Love, Parental Acceptance, Shame and perhaps Western Capitalism.
Masculinity – Authority – Shame – Love
♦ While on the surface it certainly looks like Refn presents Julian as what seems like a voyeur (A person who derives sexual gratification from observing the naked bodies or sexual acts of others) I would argue that he appears to get no sexual pleasure from watching Mai (his prostitute girlfriend) and infact that he is perhaps impotent. This is best highlighted when Julian sits in the bar watching Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) who stands behind a beaded curtain in a booth. He stares but is motionless, this is crosscut with fantasies of her leading his hand up her dress, she is sad, he is stone faced, unaroused. The fantasy ends with them both sad and solemn which is then cross-cut with a close up of Julian’s crotch. I would argue that, Julian pays to see Mai in a bid to feel like a man or his perspective of what a man/masculinity is, to be as close to a woman as he can. He cannot form relationships with women, possibly due to his abusive upbringing by his mother and possibly impotence and perhaps a combination of feeling ashamed of these factors. He therefore pays a prostitute so he can at least feel something, or at least play the traits of a MAN, or of what he see a man is. But, in doing so he is reminded of his failings and is left vulnerable. This is highlighted when two men also sitting in the room, in a private conversation start to laugh. Julian feeling vulnerable and frustrated of his failings, takes it personally,reading the situation as if the two have grasped an insight into his inadequacy and in turn laughing. He strikes with anger, regaining control through physicality and authority displaying the only masculinity he has…The Physical. The BOXER. – These moments are always cross-cut with Julian fantasising himself standing in front of the statue of a boxer, fists clenched. The epitome of Masculinity. He then attacks.
♦ Another event that plays out in a very similar way, is the restaurant scene. Julian asks his Mai to pretend to be his girlfriend. Again, Julian a good looking and wealthy man unable to form real relationships with women, instead having to pay, suggests in the light of the presented narrative, an abusive upbringing and I would argue impotence, self perception of inadequacy and shame. He asks her to come in a bid to grasp parental acceptance, something he longs for, to be loved by his mother, to be accepted. He see’s if he brings Mai along as a girlfriend that she might show love for him and see him as a man. She however, sees right through the charade and verbally destroys them both. Julian neither defends himself nor Mai, this is his mother and although he may disagree with her views, he never speaks out of turn towards her. When Mai later challenges him, asking “why do you take so much shit from her” he takes it as her not only questioning his Mother, but also his lack of masculinity in all its guises for not defending himself or her. ” he explodes pushing her against a wall, replying “Because she is my mother”, he then abruptly demands that she takes her dress off, she does, handing it back to him standing unashamedly, clad only in her underwear in a backstreet alley. This is a representation of continued humiliation that Julian feels is aimed towards his inadequacies as a man and his efforts to regain his masculinity and authority. It fails and he stands in the street opposite Mai , looking down, ashamed of his actions.
Or is the whole film a figment of Julian’s imagination, a dream, a fantasy of desires and fears of his own failing masculinity and inadequacies?
♦ Julian always striving for his mothers acceptance and love does whatever she asks in a hope of receiving it. This comes to a head when he asks the police chief to fight.. This represents Julian’s bid to regain control of the situation that he was forced into, his final solution. The two meet on the cross roads they were destined to meet from the start. Julian is utterly destroyed and left for dead, with his masculinity in tatters. He is beaten to a pulp in front of his mother and Mai who both walk away in what looks like disappointment and perhaps disgust. The only masculinity Julian was hanging onto was his physicality. He is a boxer / boxing trainer (masculinity), but when he is beaten down, he has nothing and Mai is never seen again.
♦ Up until his mother is killed, Julian still strives to do what she asks. despite his reservations in an on-going circle of a son looking for acceptance and love, a circle that he cannot escape. However, when she is killed, he is effectively free from it and therefore does not need to chase it. The visual metaphorical ending, giving up his hands is effectively handing over his masculinity or what he has left, as penance for the family’s sins. As the police Lieutenant effectively destroyed his remaining masculinity or at least his warped idea of what he has been raised to believe masculinity is.
In a basic sense, all the western characters in the film are consumers/takers who use their economic superiority to exploit the citizens of Bangkok. They too are responsible for the cycle of bloodletting and the ensuing mayhem caused throughout the film.
♦ From the offset Billy, (Julian’s older brother) is seen skulking around the neon drenched streets of the red light district looking for a 14 year old prostitute, when the local Thai owner of the bar refuses, Billy offers to pay him 15’000 Thai Baht for his daughter. Whether he meant it or not, it is a clear display of capitalistic arrogance and economic superiority.
♦ Julian’s mother Crystal, contracts an English brothel owner to gun down the people responsible for killing her son, this task is then subcontracted to local bandits who in turn pepper a local café with Uzi fire, killing nearly all innocent bystanders in a bid to get one man, the seemingly god like presence of police Lieutenant Chan.
In essence, Julian represents the good consumer/giver he respects the locals and has formed relationships, integrating and helping local athletes in his boxing gym. However, due to his family ties he is still an consume/taker and try as he might, he cannot wriggle free from the evil clutches of his mothers talons. As a result, Julian is slowly, through his mothers own wicked and manipulative ways, manoeuvred into violence by the metaphorical presence of her guiding his hands.
Refn at one point called this a Thai-western about a man who is fighting against god. If this is true then it is most definitely Old Testament style. As he Chan, the police lieutenant, only sees black and white moral distinctions. Wrong is wrong and therefore must punished.
♦ Instead of arresting Burke for the murder of the young prostitute, he locks him in a room with the her inconsolable father, who pummels Burke’s skull in like a watermelon. Yet justice does not end there, for the father too was a party to his daughter’s exploitation. The man pleads that economic circumstances led him to this place — he has no sons, which is financially disadvantageous, but because Black is Black, the lieutenant delivers his own version of swift justice by ceremoniously slicing off one of his hands with his Bishido sword.
Refn does not play the police lieutenant as a working class hero; fighting against the evil of western capitalism but rather like someone who only has one view point, wrong is wrong and therefore it must be punished. He is ultimately our anti-hero and co-protagonist and he is a joy to watch on screen.
Through all the crosscut shots and fantasy sequences of Julian standing in front of a statue of a prize boxer, fists clutched or washing off the illusionary blood of the Police Lieutenant from his hands, these fantasies are ultimately met with a hard hitting reality, when Julian asks him for a fight. The result is, total annihilation, and the subsequent realisation that this is an opponent he cannot win against with his hands, and this reaches a metaphorical certainty at the films conclusion.
The cast all perform well through the strict direction of what Refn is clearly aiming for, Gosling does what gosling does well, steely stares and silent emotionless intensity. He looks the part, does well with what he has been given but, like previously mentioned it is a very restricted role, stagnant from any obvious progression or development. Kristen Scott Thomas has most dialogue and she handles it well, being the most hideous and egotistical character in the entire film, which is as much horrendous as it is captivating to watch. However it is Vithaya Pansringarm who steels the show, being both our co-protagonist and anti-hero. He is a mysterious character both menacing and enchanting and his ruthless methods of justice make him a freighting and almost *God* like force to be reckoned with.
For some the neon bathed backstreet’s of the films Bangkok setting may offer more life and appeal than any of its characters, but again, is this perhaps the whole idea? The art direction and style of the film coupled with the endless metaphors and Symbolism being the visual and tonal representation of the narrative? This then coupled with the brooding intensity of the score by Cliff Martinez perfectly matches the hypnotic visual feast on screen.
The film is a truly wonderful, bold and unique experience, marking Nicolas Winding Refn as one of the most uncompromising and excitingly fresh directors of his generation.
While Nicolas Winding Refn has certainly indulged himself with Only God Forgives, it will surely evoke much opinion and debate, and while these opinions and debates will be of vastly different colours, he will evoke them nonetheless. For me atleast, I found Only God Forgives to be a masterful presentation of what film is all about, breaking through the boundaries of regularity, taking risks and offering something new, something unique, and instead of spelling every detail out for its audience, it forces you to work hard to decipher its meaning,