When an artist breaks through into the mainstream, their next move is often observed as critical. For someone established-but-niche, do they incorporate new, broader approaches that translate their vision for their newfound, wider audience? Does that subsequent project then buckle under the pressure of fame and expectation? Or does the artist stay their course and release a vision so personal and of their nature as to dismiss any thought over the kind of creator they might be?
If it weren’t obvious, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives falls into that last category. In 2011, his film Drive was his seventh feature film, and a breakout hit. Earning accolades at the Cannes Film Festival and a solid box office presence, the feature was led by star Ryan Gosling, who himself would be having a renaissance transcending his paperbound Notebook days. Though an arthouse name with his Pusher trilogy of films, and the surreal Viking saga Valhalla Rising, Drive was Refn’s breakout. This makes Only God Forgives his film in the limelight.
In Bangkok, Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a laconic, near-mute boxing promoter whose gym serves as a front for him and his family’s criminal enterprise. His brother Billy (Tom Burke) is a loose cannon of a crook. When Billy is killed in an altercation with a murdered prostitute, crime matriarch Crystal (Kristen Scott-Thomas) flies into Thailand to oversee her family’s revenge. At the same time, ethereal, spirit-like Thai police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) glides through the scenes, striking out at the family of brutal criminals.
In its description, Only God Forgives could be interpreted as a fairly straightforward crime film, one with shootouts, beatings, murder, and justice. But the ways in which Refn uses tropes for his visuals while digging into deep quagmires of the unconscious and darkness creates a truly hallucinogenic, bizarre experience, one marred by terrible violence and striking colors, personal perversions and neat-as-can-be camera frames. The film is dedicated to a friend of Refn and Chilean filmmaker, the mystical Alejandro Jodorowsky. Things start to make a little sense after that!
Heaven and Hell
Marketing and a casual glance at Only God Forgives would reveal an oddball gangster film, colored by… lots of bright colors and seemingly nonevent exchanges between characters; long pans down hallways going nowhere punctuated by acts of savage violence or weirdness. One moment we’re slicing a gunman down the center, ribs and blood tumbling out, and the next we’re in a karaoke bar with a bunch of Thai cops.
Refn’s film, in some ways, is a bit of a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Julian is a criminal caught between loyalties to his family, chiefly his mother, and an internal longing to do right. Internal conflict is the name of the game for Julian, who also struggles with repressed sexuality, feeling for the Thai callgirl Mai (Rhotha Phongam), but struggling to break from his domineering mother. It’s an anxiety that tears Julian apart and ultimately comes down to a choice between walking alongside God or the Devil.
Police officer Chang is revered by his colleagues, in an unreal way. When Billy kills the young prostitute, her father is allowed savage retribution, overseen by Chang. The father is then escorted out, his arm extended in a plea for mercy when Chang’s blade comes down, severing the arm. A life for a life, and an arm for good measure. Immediately after, in a moody karaoke bar, Chang is immaculately lit, singing pop songs while the local precinct of officers sits in silent, static awe. It’s bizarre, almost as if they’re being delivered a sermon.
The deification of Chang is something to be taken literally in Only God Forgives. He is a god, justice, incarnate. Important to note that as a film indebted to Eastern philosophy and culture, where the West worships the single, almighty God, Chang can be seen as a god. Lowercase. Eastern religions revolve around dozens, sometimes hundreds of deities that each serve different purposes. Chang is a god of retribution and justice.
But for Chang’s righteous path, there needs to be an alternative. Something to tempt and distract from a life of good. You don’t typically need to look too far for some bad guys in crime films, though Julian’s mother just about snaps off every rent-a-thug and crooked mobster’s head and roasts them on a spit. She’s vicious. Here’s a clip so I don’t have to type some nasty words:
Hug your mothers for being sweet, and not Crystal. As an embodiment of a Devil-like character, though, she fits the bill in ways perhaps not immediately apparent. She’s horrible to Mai, berating her job as an escort and, without reason, body-shaming her. And what does she say right after that? “I’m sorry.” She plays her cards. “I have lost my first son,” to which Mai gives her condolences. There’s a manipulative motion to break a person down and then garner sympathy (for the Devil!) here that makes Crystal much like the Satan of Catholicism. The subsequent beratement of Julian is Crystal’s long-game, no doubt played from her son’s birth. We see Crystal tempt with money, an easy key to most men’s hearts, in organizing hits and deals. Devil worshippers do it for a reason, after all.
With Chang and Crystal in mind as ethereal, almost cosmic forces of morality hanging overhead, we’re left with Julian, the everyman. The mortal, struggling against forces out of his control, looking for a way to live without the burden of being a man who’s made immoral decisions, more on that later. As the conflict between the police and Crystal’s entourage of thugs escalates, one side naturally needs to yield. It’s by Only God Forgives‘ conclusion that I earlier alluded to the film being a sheep, rather than a wolf; it’s a happy ending!
After receiving a brutal beating by Chang, Julian, Crystal’s last line of defense, is broken. The literal fear of god put into her, Crystal looks to escape Bangkok, not before being confronted in her penthouse by Chang himself, who elicits visible fear from her where she’s able to keep a mask of incredulity and sass with other police officers. Killed in cold blood by Chang, her death is repentance for all the lives lost on the end of her orders. The Devil is dead.
Show of Hands
Following Drive‘s linearity and narrative simplicity, the droning ambiance of Only God Forgives attracted harsh criticism from many, who called it “unwatchable,” claiming it was “style over substance.” I take issue with that phrase, as I believe a film’s style is inherently something substantial; for a crew to conjure images of beauty or terror, regardless of their “meaning” to the viewer is, in itself, an achievement. Tonal film is as valuable as good narrative. Besides this, Only God Forgives works in often-straightforward use of symbolism and motifs to tell not only its story but its purpose.
Early and often we catch glimpses of Julian, moping about, staring at his outstretched hands. It’s in these moments (many of which you can take literally or as figments of Julian’s imagination; the slow-paced reality of the film melts effortlessly into pure imagination) that Refn reinforces the importance of action. That is, hands are the tools with which characters perform their actions.
Boxing relies on the battering of your opponent with your fists; early on, Julian loads a revolver to be used in getting revenge for Billy’s death; Chang metes out justice, lopping off arms as payment for crimes with his magically-appearing Thai Dha blade. Hands are the temptation of violence and pain. They are the devil’s playthings. There’s a scene early on where Julian sits absent-mindedly, watching while a woman pleasures herself, though not before binding his arms carefully to the chair he sits in. For Julian, there’s a perverse trickiness to what he wants and what he gets in Only God Forgives.
Berated by his vicious mother in the wake of Billy’s death, Julian expresses some incredibly-troubling Oedipal issues in his relationship with Crystal. For her vitriol and disparagement of her son, he longs to please her, failing in more ways than one. But to speak to the earlier scene, Julian’s hands are literally tied to keep him from what he wants; the comfort of a woman. His hands are used almost the way a puppet is used, as a source of enforcement for his family’s criminal organization. Gosling’s described Julian as more of an “avatar” than a traditional narrative character with impact and thrust. Ultimately, Julian is a character who feels manipulated and born into a world of hard edges he wants nothing to do with, while still fostering a maternal longing. By the film’s end, submitting before Chang’s justice, Julian’s arms are severed as punishment, though it also comes as a relief for a man whose life has been dominated by his mother, who in turn uses her son as a means for furthering her criminal ambitions.
Action Because It’s Fun, Silence Because It Speaks
On a purely technical level, Only God Forgives is a masterpiece. Shot by Larry Smith (who worked the electrical department on several Stanley Kubrick films), Refn’s vision is symmetrical, smooth, and consistent, with neon visuals that are deeply rooted in the hell into which our characters are swimming in. Occasional glimpses of a naturally-lit world give us breaths of fresh air from the humidity and mystery of Bangkok’s streets.
For one, the cinematography of Only God Forgives relies heavily on the use of natural frames; boxes within the box that is our view of the film.
Besides being visually-attractive, the natural framing in these and other shots might recall the kind of posturing and stylization of classic western films. That’s “western” as in six-shooters and guitar strings, rather than hamburgers and Coke.
It’s classic in that sense, and Only God Forgives echoes classic westerns in more ways than just framing. The classic western is often built on archetypes meant to convey ideas and concepts. Shane in George Stevens’ film of the same name is a staple of the genre in the way it paints the portrait of a gunfighter past his days, fighting a good fight for people who still need protection from a hardening world. The Wild Bunch states its intention in its tagline. “Unchanged men in a changing land. Out of step, out of place, and desperately out of time.” Western outlaws fighting against ruthless government pursuers is about as bluntly as one can discuss the end of an era, with the taming of a land played out by the bodies on screen. In this sense, the aforementioned God/Devil struggle might seem a little less lofty and perhaps even typical of a western film. Western cinema has worked in metaphor from the beginning. It’s how Refn dresses his world that matters.
The “eastern western,” that is the samurai film, might come to mind with Chang’s slicing and dicing, and some of the gunplay, though minimal, might recall the explosive squibs and shrapnel of a John Woo gangster film. And why not? Those films are legendary. They’re technical marvels and as purely-visceral an entertainment as you could ever ask for. Refn loves this stuff, and he’s honest in the ways he responds to violence. The adrenaline rush provoked by violence is intrinsic to human nature, but luckily we’re past the age of clubbing each other for a scrap of mammoth. (Now we do it for some french fries! I’ll be here all week!) Violent entertainment, whether its video games or comics or movies, is where we get our fix.
By augmenting his meditation on spirituality with the pulpy violence of genre films, Refn simply keeps his audience engaged, whipping from bursts of “fun” to stretches of calm. It’s these moments of extreme violence that viewers couldn’t be faulted for feeling to be excessive or self-indulgent, a criticism of Refn that is often raised (and one that I would defend as being a virtue of his, though that’s another conversation). His fascination with violence would feel far more at home if our victims were multiplied by a dozen, maybe, facing bloodless PG-13 demise at the hands of a Dwayne Johnson or Tom Cruise. But Refn pulls no punches with his pain, and the shocking detail with which we see violence depicted in his films and in Only God Forgives, in particular, contrasts with the languid pace that leads to these punctuations of blood and broken bones.
A pool of viewers either outright opposed to or indifferent towards Only God Forgives might see the violence as an insult to the audience, following ponderous stretches of subconscious rumination and neon intrigue. Personally, I’d implore them to take a simpler approach. For as theological as I think Refn’s film is, it’s also a pure expression of love for the medium of cinema. We see, here, images and colors channeled to elicit a physical response from the viewer’s body with unsettling violence as well as sensual thematic imagery and palettes. Cliff Martinez’s aforementioned score, a work of genius, hits notes of horror film punctuation, causing a physical rise out of an attentive audience. Horror films look to immerse viewers like few other genres. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (a favorite of Refn’s) conjures a feeling of rot and heat with its hazy, sun-bleached locations and twangs of noise on the soundtrack, while the stabbing tempo of Psycho hits subconscious notes of discomfort in the audience.
With that in mind, Only God Forgives can be appreciated as a work where the style bringing the story–call it flimsy if you will–to life is really the experience you should hope to have. It’s visceral and bodily while being deeply existential and layered.
The controversy surrounding Refn’s Drive follow-up was something that really baffled me for a while. I would never imply to be a headier viewer than the film’s critics, but some of the derision towards Only God Forgives seemed flat-out hypocritical or unmerited. I’ve heard the film called “slow,” while at 89 minutes you have a plot that truly moves forward in almost every scene. The inquisitive silence that might be seen as an awkward parody of Gosling’s Driver from he and Refn’s first collaboration is simply in keeping with work like 2009’s Valhalla Rising. I believe strongly that if Only God Forgives had come after that acid odyssey it would have met a more positive reception. Yet I don’t think something like Only God Forgives could exist without being the follow-up to something like Drive.
Where Drive represented a detour for Refn, i.e. him “going Hollywood,” Only God Forgives is the prodigal son returning. By deviating and trying something more conventional and different than what he’d done before, it’s almost as if Refn was able to return to his world of murky ambiguity tenfold, a crystal-clear vision of the neon hellscape he’s now making his calling card. Subsequent works like The Neon Demon and the recent Too Old to Die Young series on Amazon feel like echoes of the style Refn hammered out here. Call it diminishing returns, but while his films since 2013 have been fascinating and I, as a fan, can watch them on end, there’s something so gut-wrenching in Only God Forgives that it almost feels like a rebirth of the man’s work. It came after nearly two decades of filmmaking from Refn and feels as definitive a piece as some of the strongest debut or early features from other similar filmmakers.