Following my little rant on why Star Trek: The Motion Picture is secretly a great film, I would like to spend a little time with director Nicholas Winding Refn’s film Only God Forgives. This was the follow-up to Refn’s critically and financially successful movie Drive. However, Only God Forgives received poor reviews and general dislike when it was released. Critics missed the boat on this one. Only God Forgives is a baffling, thrilling and artful film that deserves much more praise then it recieved.
Only God Forgives is set in a nightmarish, neon-lit Bangkok. The story follows Julian (played by an oddly discreet Ryan Gosling) and his brother Billy. One night, Billy rapes and kills a prostitute and is discovered by the inscrutable Thai police lieutenant Chang. Chang allows the prostitute’s father to beat Billy, but the father goes to far and Billy dies. As Julian comes to terms with his brother’s death, his mother Crystal arrives in Bangkok, eager to get revenge on Chang for the death of her son. Julian is reluctant to get revenge and prompts Crystal to hire hits on Chang. What should have been a straight forward revenge killing becomes more complex as Chang forces Crystal and Julian to meet their fate.
Like any art-house film, Only God Forgives is steeped in symbolism and meaning. Bangkok is portrayed as a nightmarish place, and bears little resemblance to the real city. All of the buildings are lit by high contrast neon lights, and shadows cover the street. Because of the setting, the audience should understand that this story is not realistic. It is a morality play, and the nightmarish imagery shows the depths to which humanity can fall as we try to escape our own destiny.
The key to this film is the idea that fate will always catch up with us. Chang represents death, the devil, fate… really whatever you want him to represent. He is a force of nature, not really a character. His goal in life is punish those who live their lives outside of an honorable moral code, or who feel that their actions put them above repercussions. Throughout the film, Julian and Crystal both attempt to take control of their lives in a way that minimalizes the impact of their actions. They see themselves as above death and fate, and ultimately pay for their ignorance. As Crystal begins to call in hits on Chang, she is actively fighting against a sort of karma in her life. It was her poor parenting that allowed Billy to fall into a life that lead to his death, and she can not punish the forces of nature (represented by Chang) for giving Billy exactly what he deserved. In Only God Forgives the idea that all of our actions have a result that we can not escape is a key theme. The results of our actions are very real and they can destroy us in the end. Since the movie is based so much around this idea of fate and karma, it feels unreal, almost like a fairy-tale. This movie is not set in any world that we recognize. It is set in a dream world or morality plays.
One of the biggest complaints against this film was that Ryan Gosling’s character Julian was essentially a non-character. He did not have any emotion and was not really human. This was done by Nicholas Winding Refn on purpose. Many films have main characters that are essentially non-characters. The astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey have little or no emotion. The main characters in Shane Currath’s Upstream Color display little development outside of their purely animal reflexes. Even the character One-Eye in Refn’s own Valhalla Rising (which oddly enough received a lot praise from critics) had no definable traits. When characters are presented as mere avatars of humanity, we need to ask ourselves what the writer is trying to do.
In Only God Forgives, Julian demonstrates the feeling of being a victim of fate. His life is not his own. Throughout the movie we see that he takes abuse from his mother, acts only when other people tell him to and attempts to escape any personal responsibility for his actions. Julian is a mess of psychological hang-ups. He is emotionally unable to sexually interact with women in his life. His life is controlled by the personality of his mother, who has given him a strong Oedipus complex. Even when he tries to face Chang (remember that Chang represents the results of our actions) he is beat nearly to death. Julian is meant to encompass all the neuroses of the world, and the crushing feeling of fate in our lives. Julian is completely powerless in his world. Despite his fighting skills and physical strength, he is emotionally and spiritually unable to cope with the pressures of his own life. Only when he surrenders himself to his fate does Julian receive release from his nightmare, but at great personal cost.
Besides all of those thematic elements, Only God Forgives is also a fascinating film to watch for the cinematography. This is a movie that is mainly told visually, much like 2001 or Tree of Life. Fortunately, Nicholas Winding Refn has always been a great visual director. Only God Forgives is filled with bright, contrasting colors that give the film a dream-like hypnotic quality. The film uses colors to manipulate our emotions. Scenes with blue hues feel comforting and large. Other scenes are tinted with bright red and other bright colors that feel oppressive and claustrophobic. I was really amazed by how much the color of the scenes messed with my emotions.
Only God Forgives is also incredibly violent, per Refn’s normal style. The violent scenes in Only God Forgives come out of nowhere and break up the hypnotic feel of this film. Especially interesting are the fighting (and shooting) scenes of this movie, which are all shot centered in the frame with graceful sweeping camera work. Most of the time, the violence is symmetrically placed in center frame, which gives these violent scenes an unreal feeling to them. Only God Forgives is not for the faint of heart. Actually, it can be quite terrifying.
So why did this movie receive so many bad reviews? I believe that it was because many critics went into this film expecting another Drive. When they saw Only God Forgives (which is admittedly not as strong as Drive) they were disappointed. Only God Forgives and Drive are two completely different films. Drive is an art-house action movie. It is slow-moving and a bit abstract, but generally follows the normal beats of an action movie. It is filled with emotional moments, synth-pop songs and scenes that just exude turn-of-the-century cool. Only God Forgives however is a descent into hell. It is a stylized, slow-moving movie divorced from reality. Much like a nightmare, the only predominate emotion in the movie is fear and unease. If we do not feel emotionally satisfied at the end of Only God Forgives that is fine. The movie was not meant to emotionally satisfy us. Rather, it is meant to give a cautionary tale and show us the lows to which humanity could sink. If you watch Only God Forgives expecting another Drive you will be completely disappointed. They are two different movies and should not really be compared.
With time, Only God Forgives will see a resurgence and be considered one of Refn’s best films. It suffered the misfortune of being released to any audience who was already stuck in preconceived notions of what Nicholas Winding Refn should do. Had Only God Forgives been released before Drive, it would have been considered a success. As it sits now, Only God Forgives will be a footnote on in Refn’s impressive filmography, until it sees a rediscovery in the next few years.