Review gosling only god forgives pic, only god forgives image, ryan gosling still

Published on July 30th, 2013 | by Allan Brown

12

Only God Forgives Review

Movie Review: Only God Forgives (2013)ryan-gosling-only-god-forgives-poster

Rating:  (18)

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.

 

 

Movie Review World

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.

 
only god forgives, ryan gosling imageThe 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.
ryan-gosling-movie-only-god-forgivesOn 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.

 

gosling only god forgives, ryan gosling movie, gosling movie, only god forgive, refn only god forgives♦ 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.

 

Western Capitalism

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.

For example

kristen-scott-thomas-only-god-forgives♦ 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.

For Example

♦ 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.

only-god-forgives-boxer-statueRefn 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.

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 as a man and a son through the eyes of an abused child?
only-god-forgives-kristen-scott-thomas- Vithaya Pansringarm

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.

Only God Forgives Review Allan Brown

Verdict

Summary: 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,

5

Exquisite


User Rating: 4 (1 votes)

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About the Author

Despite my 9-5 being consumed by the daily duties of a local Electrician, Movie Review World serves as a platform for me to share my thoughts, explorations and reflections on one of my biggest passions, film.



12 Responses to Only God Forgives Review

  1. Betty says:

    Ryan Gosling AND art house! This is on my must see list!

    • I liked it a lot and it is a film I find myself thinking about its meaning more and more each day. Repeat viewings are essential to fully understand it and I for one am looking forward to my next screening. But note, this is certainly no Ryan Gosling movie.

  2. Sarah Igoe says:

    Another great review Allan. Although perhaps too easy an unpicking of the themes. I disagree that the film seeks to explore struggling masculinities, authority and capitalism. Instead I would suggest that actually, what is explored masterfully in this film, are the themes of parental responsibility and love. No lest between Julian and Billy, but of course Julian and his mother as well Chan and his daughter and the murdered prostitute and her father.

    Both Julian’s hiring of a prostitute to take to dinner to meet his mother and the scene wherein he later strips her in an alley way of the dress he bought her is less a bid to restore masculinity than it is a depiction of humility and a portrayal of heartbreak; shame and longing. Julian is conflicted between his understanding of right and wrong and his love for his mother. He silently deplores her wickedness, the vulgarity of her conversation and the horrific demands she makes on him but serves her forever dutifully because she is his mother. Had it been his intention to restore masculinity he would have protested her ambush at dinner, however pathetically, initially before punishing Mai for correcting his mother in the pronunciation of her name. He would have followed through with a physical attack on Mai when she questioned his loyalties as opposed to stripping her which we know he soon regrets when he fails to look her in the eye as she stands scantily clad in the alleyway.

    Julian’s struggle with his love for his mother is strengthened in earlier scenes wherein Mai seduces him while Billy is being murdered. Julian never touches Mai nor does he physically respond to her as she masturbates. He is only ever shown as a voyeur, shamed to touch or even appear to enjoy. This does not reinforce a suggestion of greed or arrogance of the western males as sordid sex predators. Instead it alludes to the suggestion that both Julian and Billy have been subject to sexual abuse themselves. Julian, as played by Gosling, is an attractive, powerful and successful male living in Bangkok. He should have no reason to pay for sex nor shy from the act of but he does. Similarly what we know of Billy suggests he also has a warped understanding of love, respect and relationships. His search to “fuck a fourteen year old” is unnatural and depraving, product, criminal psychologists might argue, of an abused soul. Although lacking in remorse, he does not glorify or attempt to escape from what he has done after he raped and murdered the prostitute. He sits, numbly and silently before he is beaten to a pulp by his victims father for his unforgivable and deplorable actions.

    I would argue that the true victim here, Refn is suggesting, is Billy. This is reinforced by the way in which Julian deals with the death of Billy. Initially he is gung-ho about garnering revenge for his murdered sibling but when he later realises why he was killed, he retreats. This is more than just because he understands killing a sixteen year old is wrong. This is because he understands that in doing so, Billy has released his inner demons and his trauma at what his own mother did to him, the horrific oppression he has been subject to for who knows how long. He knows now, that in death, Billy is at peace and he can live with moving on without extracting revenge. Which, is what a man looking to restore masculinity and exert an obtuse brand of white capitalist authority over less fortunate would look to do.

    I think the film is far more complex and interesting than one might realise upon first viewing however, which is why I can’t wait to go see it again. Refn, has outdone himself, and I champion his use of an at times disjointed narrative that raises questions for you. I don’t feel that anything is missing and I love the fact that Refn is challenging me, as spectator, to decipher and unpick.

    Succinct casting, beautiful cinematography and a steady pace. I loved it and would probably give it 5 stars.

    • Some excellent points raised there Sarah. However, while the broad themes you mention are clearly prevalent in the narrative and are surely the driving force behind a most of Julian’s decisions and motivations, I think masculinity is too prevalent and shown to often not to be one of the main themes explored.

      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 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.

      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.

      I guess this film will draw many conclusions and different opinions in its analysis and that to me at least is the mark of a truly exquisite and thought provoking film.

      Thanks for reading Sarah and as always for your fascinating and insightful contribution on what I now regard after a second viewing, as an almost perfect film.

  3. Betty says:

    Ok, I have finally managed to shift the tense feeling in my chest and throat that I was left with after being griped to this film yesterday!

    Although after post-match analysis, I do see that masculinity could be a theme of the film, when I was watching the film I was struck more with themes of Power/Authority and Obedience/Duty. The Power and Authority both Julian’s mum hold’s over her boys (and the obedience/sense of duty expected of them) and the Power and Authority Chan has over the community (and the obedience required from them…. and repercussions if they do not do so). Because of this I took (although could just be me) that Chan seemed to be a representation/metaphor for Julian’s mother. This seemed to be confirmed for me in the scene where Julian decides to confront Chan and stand up to him by fighting with him. This is the first scene where he seems to stand up and fight against the authority figure and try to take the power back himself. As he is fighting him, his mother is seen walking in, observing and almost looking distressed at this. It is the next scene that she ups the stakes and uses emotional blackmail to re-establish her authority and power and to really increase Julian’s sense of duty and understanding that his obedience to her authority is essential.

    With the Chan/Mother link in mind, I also felt that this was perhaps why Julian spared Chan’s daughter who was perhaps a representation for him, not to be purely defined and by the actions of their parent. In this scene I felt like Julian was again trying to be his own person, defined by his own morals and beliefs rather than actions defined by a sense of duty to conform with their authority figure.

    These are just some things I felt like I picked up when watching it, but then again this is coming from a very novice point of view. Anyway, really enjoyed the film, feel like it challenged me watching it and have been thinking about it a lot since, which is always a good sign I feel.

    • Impressive analysis and pretty watertight theory. I agree that Chan could possibly be a metaphorical representation of Julian’s mother, as Julian starts to have visions of the Police Lieutenant way before he ever meets him. This in theory, could also mean the character represents an emotion or a trait rather than a physical person which in turn has me thinking perhaps more characters conform to this rule.
      Its Such a deep film to get lost in, the possibilities are truly endless. Great work detective Anderson :-)

  4. Tyson Carter says:

    Fantastic write up Allan. Also, the site looks brilliant, very professional and smart, I am insanely jealous!! I look forward to seeing what else you do here :)

    • Allan Brown says:

      Thanks for the kind comments Tyson, I’m still very new to the game but so far I’m loving every minute of it. Thanks Again and I also look forward to joining your community of film fanatics. :)

  5. theipc says:

    This is a great article, that’s for sure. And yep – this is a good looking site you’ve got here : )

    • Allan Brown says:

      Thank you my friend, as is yours. Im looking forward to being active in the film review community, so many great sites and reviewers. Cheers again.

  6. Mark Walker says:

    Fabulous review mate! You mention Larry Smith’s work on Eyes Wide Shut and like that film, I think Refn’s is better served by viewing it from a subconscious level. Kubrick’s movie was similarly misunderstood upon its release.

    Films of this nature are real slow burners but over time they tend to get the respect they deserve. Marketing and expectations tend to play a massive part in people’s disappointment too. This was certainly a casualty of that. Just look at the trailer, it doesn’t even come close to depicting what this films about.

    • Allan Brown says:

      Oh, don’t even get me started on that trailer. It was bordering on fraudulent and no doubt one of the leading factors into the films backlash.

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