I am not going to lie, or pretend I was unbiased. I came into Only God Forgives knowing I was going to like it. Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Bronson, the Pusher Trilogy) is my favorite current director, Ryan Gosling (Baby Goose) is one of my favorite working actors, and the cinematographer worked on Barry Lyndon, my favorite Kubrick film. I had known from the moment I first heard of the project I was going to like it. The question that remained was the extent of my liking of it.
Many have found problems understanding what the film is about. By ‘about’, I do not mean the plot. The plot is easy to discern. I am not talking about what the film is, but rather, its purpose. Only God Forgives is about a man who attempts to be let go from his mother’s grasp on him, seeks forgiveness for his sins, and the god who has to choose whether or not to forgive him. Yeah, it’s pretty heavy.
Before going nose-deep into this film’s themes, motifs, and incestualness, there are a few things I want to point out. Only God Forgives is an experimental film. Reviewing it like a traditional film, like most seem to be doing, does not work very well. Looking for intricate plot with twists and turns? You will be let down. Looking for another Drive-esque thriller? You will be let down. This is a spiritual journey, with loads of metaphors, symbolism, and what-not. The characters do not act as if they are from our world because they are simply not from our world; they are from Refn’s mind. You have to look past all of that in order to begin to see the bigger picture.
Vithaya Pansringarm plays Chang, a police officer who punishes those who do wrong. Baby Goose is Julian, the owner of a Thai boxing ring, a front for a drug operation. When Julian’s brother (Tom Burke) rapes and kills a 16-year old, Chang allows the father to do what he wants with him. He ends up dead. Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) comes to the country, and being the vindictive person she is, she forces Julian and Chang’s paths to collide.
Despite not sounding like it, it is experimental. It is incredibly violent and incredibly gorgeous. Each frame (especially the first ones featuring Crystal) seem like they could be printed out, framed (hah! A frame framed…), and put on a wall.
See? As I said: gorgeous. Refn has everything put together in a beautiful fashion, which is a little strange to say about a film that has a scene where eyes are gouged out. The red and blue neon lighting adds a sense of oddness to the film, as those colors stand out as nontraditional. It makes sense, though, since Refn is actually colorblind to all mid-range colors.
A huge motif in the film, seen from the very beginning, is hands. Specifically, the hands of Julian. In an early scene, Julian is seeing a prostitute. She is fingering herself, while he has his arms tied down to a chair, watching. While watching the film, I thought he was… well… watching a girl finger herself. But thinking back, I realize he was watching her hands and their effect on the rest of the woman’s body. Some critics think Gosling was bored in this role. I think his character was numb, for various reasons. In this scene his icy glance felt was sad to watch.
He wants forgiveness. Crystal tells Chang while he is interrogating her that Julian strangled his father (with his hands), which is why he is in Bangkok. Is it this that Julian seeks forgiveness for? It is implied that Crystal forced him to do it, but there is something Julian does later in the film which might be what he wishes to be forgiven for. Does Chang oblige him? Does he not? This is something many are unsure of. I know what I think, but this does not matter to you. I will not spoil it for you, as it is something for you to either love or hate.
There is a lot to hate in this film. It is kinda gratuitous, with violence at every corner. Crystal clearly had sexual relations with both of her sons, and with Chang doing his thing. The film has these sections juxtaposed with Chang singing Thai songs (like the one below!), which is rather unsettling. Cliff Martinez’s score heightens the strange atmosphere to high levels, and with the mix of Refn’s style makes the film’s dedication to Alejando Jodorwosky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) unsurprising.
Every film Refn makes seems to be completely different. Drive was a love story disguised as an action thriller. Bronson was a violent bio-pic. Valhalla Rising was a journey into Hell. Only God Forgives is a spiritual journey towards forgiveness. Refn is my favorite working director, as I mentioned in the first paragraph. I look forward to each of his films, knowing I will see (at the very least) a visual masterpiece. Whatever project he cares to move forward with, whether it be the Carey Mulligan sex-thriller, the Baby Goose rom-com, the future-Tokyo set Valhalla Rising sequel, or the Repo Man/March of the Penguins crossover (that last one was just me spit-balling ideas for him), I will gladly watch it and love it, if not for the story, then for the off-kilter neon red color palette.