Only God Forgives is one of those films that completely divides opinion. You either love it or you hate it. You get it or you don’t think there is anything to get. Whether you enjoy the film will most likely depend on two things: one, whether you enjoy working at viewing a film or whether you like something with a formula that you understand; and two, how much you like delving into the darkest tunnels of the human soul- some people just don’t want to go there.
I am always interested when reviews of a film are quite so polarized. One person can take from Ryan Gosling’s performance a subtle, haunting inner struggle for his soul told by his eyes, and another can see a poor performance with little dialogue and one facial expression. Again, it depends how closely you want to look. I saw this film as an exploration of man’s soul and therefore a rare gem of a film, albeit not one that I will watch repeatedly due to the dark subject matter and horrific violence.
Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a young man existing in his own state of hell, where nightmare and reality are as blurred as the neon lights of Bangkok from drunken eyes. Julian and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) run a Muay Thai boxing gym as a front for their drug racket. Early in the film, Billy is killed after a horrific incident with a prostitute and we are introduced to Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the mysterious policeman with the samurai sword who strides around Thailand dishing out punishment for the sinful, and Crystal, the trashy mother, portrayed with venom by Kirsten Scott Thomas. Crystal may look like your typical gangster’s moll: tacky, cheap, chain-smoking with a vulgar and cutting mouth, however it becomes apparent that the depths of her depravity far exceed any stereotype and the indications are that her relationship with her sons has been highly suspect. Crystal demands revenge for the death of her first son from Julian, her youngest son. However, Julian is more occupied with the dark corridors of his mind, and his fantases about either his prostitute girlfriend, or his hands being cut off by Chang’s samurai sword.
What I liked about this film is that everything is suggested, not through words, but through images. No shot is wasted. The mise-en-scene is the narrator. The repeated shots of Julian’s hands are informing the viewer that Julian is both ashamed of what they have done and afraid of what they might do and are therefore a precursor of what is to come. Chang, the cop on his tail, represents the divine force or possibly “God” who literally gives Julian what he wants by severing his hands, giving him punishment and perhaps redemption -“Do you know who he is?” a policeman asks Julian, Refn is perhaps asking the audience.
Julian is often shot alone and in shadow, where his soul is lurking. Numerous shots of Julian with his prostitute are cut to images of his mother, informing the viewer that she is always in his mind during sexual experiences or fantasies. The dark, red lighting shows Julian’s confusion between reality and nightmare. The shot of the beastly, devil like image in the gym is perhaps a glimpse of the monsters that surround Julian in life. Chang’s dress and use of the samurai sword are resonant of Kung Fu movies and the constant battle between light and dark. The soundtrack is at times like that of a horror movie, at other times soft and elegiac. The shots of Gosling’s face are half in shadow, half in light like his soul and his hand is constantly reaching out to be touched before being it is severed, which is most definitely symbolic.
The reason many people will not get this movie is the same reason many people do not like the work of Martin Scorsese or David Lynch. This is Julian’s worldview, in the same way Taxi Driver was Travis Bickle’s worldview, therefore we are never shown any character from their perspective – the world is glimpsed only through Julian’s tortured experience. As a director, this is a talent not to be underestimated, but it is not always enjoyed, and certainly not by mainstream audiences.
Doorways are a major theme, and perhaps overused. On the second viewing nearly every short of Julian and Chang on their own is in front of a doorway – reminiscent of Taxi Driver and The Searchers. What is more interesting about the doorway shots is what is taking place behind or in front of the doorways. Often Chang is standing in the doorway waiting – the action taking place out of his eyesight, he is inactive until he appears in the scene to exact his punishment on the perpetrators. In shots of Julian in doorways, when he is in action, the people in other rooms are not, suggesting again, that this worldview is Julian’s alone – to the extent that the action stops when he is not in the room.
Other surreal elements are the karaoke scenes where Chang belts out sentimental love songs as his colleagues sit with intent faces. I feel like I should have some intelligent answer involving symbolism here, but on second viewing, they really are just weird. Were the scenes in any way comical it might suggest the absurdity of life among all of the violence and depravity, perhaps that is close to the intention. It could also be a cultural thing – Thai people love karaoke – clearly irrespective of whether they are samurai sword wielding deliverers of justice.
A lot of the criticism towards the film is directed towards the use of violence. Again, there is more than one way to look at this. I have never had an aversion to violent films, but I have an aversion to violence used as a cheap thrill or when it appears trivialised. This film does neither. Yes, it is particularly darkly violent, and it is repulsive, however what we forget is that violence should repulse you. If violence in a film does not make you flinch and look away, then the director has either done a very poor job, or it has been trivialised. This film is an exploration of the darker aspects of the human condition. It is supposed to be terrifying because there are parts of the human experience that are. It is your choice whether you look or not as Refn suggests in one particularly violent scene involving hair pins and meat skewers, where an unseen voice instructs the girls in the club ,who dutifully cover their eyes, “No matter what happens girls, keep your eyes closed, and you men, take a good look”.
Refn is making a statement on two levels: about film and about life. It is a choice: to pretend that these things don’t happen and to look away, or to look and try to understand. The premise of this film is a fight for Julian’s soul. It is implied that he is not completely evil and in fact, he seems to welcome his punishment with literally outstretched arms. Perhaps that is the statement Refn is making. There is redemption even for the most depraved of souls if they seek it. Even in the darkest shadows of existence, there is light. However, even that is open to interpretation. When Crystal dies, Julian makes a gruesome attempt to get back inside the womb, but in the next shot Julian’s mother is replaced with his whore, which may not be a good sign. And you could question whether the final scene actually takes place or not – this is Julian’s nightmare and the viewer is not privy to reality.