Only God Forgives — review by Josh Heath

The Challenge that is Only God Forgives
Josh Heath

Nicholas Winding Refn has always been a very stylish director, focusing on crafting gorgeous worlds occupied by stoic, tragic characters. In Refn’s last two directorial efforts, Drive and Only God Forgives, Ryan Gosling has spoken fewer words than Silent Bob. Drive was well-received by critics, many praising Gosling’s near-silent performance, as well as the ambient soundtrack and stylized ultra-violence. It was even nominated for an Oscar (for sound editing, which is essentially the “Thanks For Playing” award). Only God Forgives, however, has received very polarizing reviews, sitting at a 40 out of 100% favorable according to RottenTomatoes. It was given a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for a palm d’Or, while being booed at the same exact time. But why the dissent? What happened?

The challenge posed by Refn’s most recent film does not lie in deciphering it. The symbolism and metaphor used in the film are pretty straightforward, presented with a wonderful visual panache that could only be brought to you through Refn’s eyes. The challenge is trying to relate to any of the characters in the film. Ryan Gosling’s stoic, model-faced Julian doesn’t seem like a real human being. Barely saying anything, Julian has a problem with his hands. He cannot use them, as if they are useless to him. I enjoyed the film’s use of duality in one of the scenes in the strip club, where there are two Julians: a light Julian and a dark Julian. The dark Julian does indeed use his hands on one of the prostitutes with whom he is familiar, whereas the light Julian usually ties his hands up while the prostitute gets herself off. A great metaphor. He cannot even use his hands for love. The character is fleshed out enough, though, that we can at least understand why he is the way he is. Even though we maybe not be able to connect with him on a human level, we feel sympathy for him and his journey.

The way the dreamlike sequences permeate the film keeps drawing me back in, though. Some of the more notable sequences are the karaoke scenes, where Vithaya Pansringarm’s Chang, the antagonist of the film, sings to a hall of very attentive fellow police officers. These scenes always take place after Chang dishes out his form of vengeance-based judgment, usually involving the removal of limbs. Even these bloody scenes, where arms go flying, are gorgeously grotesque and intimately intense. The karaoke scenes usually take place after Chang uses his sword of justice, as I like to call it. The scene itself is very serene and gentle, almost as though all the police officers in attendance are hypnotized by Chang’s singing. As an audience, we are also hypnotized and drawn into this gentle scene through the neon-dipped room where Chang, softly, almost as if praying, serenades his fellow officers. I believe the karaoke scenes act as repentance for Chang, who seems to be asking for forgiveness from his own God. He himself is not God, just one of God’s workers. An Angel of Vengeance, if you will. That’s not how Refn decided to direct Pansringarm, however. He had directed the character of Chang by continuously whispering in Pansringarm’s ear, “you are God” (IMDb). The stoicism played by Chang seems necessary for the character as an outside observer watching these wretched, flawed humans perform depraved, vile acts for selfish pursuits, removing offending arms, hands, and legs, as a form of both forgiveness and remembrance.

It’s an interesting dynamic, Chang vs. Julian. Julian is chided into taking revenge on Chang, as Chang had let Julian’s brother be killed as punishment for a crime. Julian’s mother, Crystal, played by a phenomenally feisty Kristin Scott Thomas, gets the pacifistic Julian to agree to kill Chang. This leads to an epic clash with God. Julian’s useless hands are put to the test in a great clash, which leads to an abrupt, but satisfying conclusion, where Julian must accept his fate and give his tribute to God. There is a fantastic series of shots were Julian strikes a pose similar to that of a Thai warrior statue present in the boxing arena. Julian looks at his hands and tries to mimic the great warrior, his hands clenched in the same manner as the statue. For the sake of his family, Julian will try to defend their honor and redeem himself.

Speaking of his family, there is a very strange, dark, Oedipal subplot thrown into the mix to flesh out the characters even more. It is implied, rather heavily, that Crystal was a very loving mother, and not in the traditional sense. It’s this drive behind Julian’s motivations that actually gives him some depth. He is against violence, despite hiding in a boxing arena. His hands are useless, and he is quite aware of this fact as he gazes at his hands like a toddler looking at blocks for the first time. But he cannot let his mother down, the woman who birthed him, raised him, and loved him. He also needs to avenge his brother, the obvious favorite. It really does make Julian a tragic, Macbeth-like figure.

This movie is more about mood than anything else, I think. While there is character development and growth, admittedly, this film is not the best at telling its story. But with films like this, you aren’t necessarily watching for the story. The hypnotic, dreamlike atmosphere, lit almost exclusively by downtown Bangkok’s neon lights, is a place where you could believe God would be going around dishing out justice to the underbelly of the city. You believe this is a place where Julian and his drug-smuggling family would hide in a Thai boxing arena. The imagery and feel goes with exactly what Refn was trying to do. His goal was to create this world after his daughter allegedly saw a ghost while the family was staying in Thailand. You don’t watch this movie for the performances, either; you watch this movie to appreciate the craft, the beauty, and the attempt to keep some originality in Hollywood. This film is so gorgeous that it merits at least one watch. The savage brutality of its protagonist, while challenging in its degree of violence, is too intriguing to just ignore. It’s just like walking through an art museum: you may not understand it, you may not like it, but you can still admire the work and dedication that went into creating the final product. We need more bold, brave directors like Refn to continue to go against the grain of established, Hollywood cinematic narrative. This is not a perfect film. But it is a powerful film, an attempt at something new, something original. Even though it didn’t win any awards, critics sure have been talking highly of it. Bill Gibron of PopMatters says, “David Lynch must be laughing. If he had created something like Only God Forgives,…he would have walked away from Cannes 2013 with yet another Palme d’Or, another notch in his already sizable artistic belt, and the kind of critical appreciation that only comes when a proven auteur once again establishes his creative credentials.” Perhaps the reason this film was panned was because Refn isn’t quite an established Hollywood auteur? Do we even want him to be? Hollywood seems to be sucking creativity out of its established directors. Either way, I can’t wait for Refn’s next flick. Maybe Ryan Gosling might say a few whole sentences, eh?

Works Cited

Gibron, Bill (19 July 2013). “Only God Forgives, Not this Fascinating Film’s Director.” PopMatters. Retrieved 27 November 2013.
IMDb. “Only God Forgives Trivia.”Internet Movie Database. Amazon, 2012. Web. 27 Nov. 2013. .
RottenTomatoes. Only God Forgives Flixster, July 2013. Web. 27 Nov. 2013. .