Only God Forgives
Nicolas Winding Refn shocked and awed audiences with his revisionist take on the crime film in 2011 with Drive. Ryan Gosling delivered a terrific physical performance in the film alongside Carey Mulligan and Oscar Isaac who are perfect as well. The success, critical and commercial, turned Refn from an arthouse-genre film maker into an internationally known director, one that could cash in the chips he received from Drive to make his next project. Only God Forgives (2013) stars Gosling and is a revision of the crime/action film but this new film couldn’t be more different than Drive.
Only God Forgives is simultaneously a meditation on death, redemption, the Devil, God, the Oedipus complex, and gangsterism. Gosling plays Julian Thompson, an expatriate living in Bangkok, operates a muay-thai boxing club (his mother calls it a “fag boxing gym”) that is funded by his mother’s mob (his mother tells his date later in the film that the gym is a front for her heroin and drug trafficking activities). We are introduced early to Julian and his brother Billy. Julian says nothing for the most part. Gosling continues the strong-silent type characterization he used in Drive (based on Alain Delon’s Jef Costello and Ryan O’Neil’s Driver).
Gosling stares intently at objects and moves slowly, giving weight to every little movement he makes within the frame. Billy is a pig in a man’s body. He’s all id without any super-ego to keep him grounded to any human moral universe out there. Billy goes to a whorehouse that appears to cater to American male travelers. None of the women behind the glass are young enough for him; he wants a 14-year old. The manager tells him that’s too young. Billy asks about his daughter. He then breaks through the glass cage the women are in and begins to molest them. Refn doesn’t show us how this sexually violent scene ends but implies the consequences.
Billy has raped and killed a young prostitute. Enter the Leutenant Chang (played by Vithaya Pansringarm)—the Angel of Death—to the film. He has captured Billy and brings the father of the death prostitute. Chang leaves them alone. The father brutally murders Billy while Chang and his police officers wait outside. Eye for an eye. No lawyers, trials, and jail time in this world. Chang is God and he delegates justice to his people. The father gets his revenge but he is not off the hook. Did he know his daughter was selling her body for money? Yes he did. Why did he let her do it? His family needed the money. Chang questions the father about what he could have done to save her. The father whimpers and tries to absolve himself of any responsibility for his daughter’s fate. Chang doesn’t buy it and raises his sword; cut to an image of an image being sliced off.
Refn foreshadows form with form in this film and like the way Alfred Hitchcock did in Psycho (1960) and Martin Scorsese did in Taxi Driver (1976). We don’t know whose arm is being sliced off because there is no context to the image except for the shots of the previous scene cut together with the shot of the arm being sliced off. Hands, whether open or closed, permeate this film. Refn continually focuses on Gosling’s hand’s tensing up, relaxing, making a fist, etc. along with shots of muay-thai boxer statues posing in a fighting stance and Lt. Chang’s avenging sword cutting hands off.
Hands represent power, regret, and violence in Only God Forgives. Julian repeatedly stares at his hands because of what he did in the past. We find out later in the film why Julian is an expatriate: his mother ordered him to kill his father in America. He fled to Thailand to escape punishment. Like previous film noirs past sins come to haunt the protagonist. The return of the repressed or the punishment of sins from the past is one of the few thematic staples we can coherently use to describe film noir and neo-noir. Julian killed his father for whatever reason and we are not told exactly why. However, we learn later that his mother, Crystal Thompson (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), calls the shots in the mob and in the family. She has a strange amount of information about both Julian’s and Billy’s penises and their respective. We can surmise that Julian was forced by his mother to kill his father (“The sexual wishes in regard to the mother become more intense and the father is perceived as an obstacle; this gives rise to the Oedipus complex”). Julian stares at his hands, haunted by the memory of killing his father. But, he his character doesn’t stay with his mother. He leaves to Thailand, leaving Crystal alone.
“If the right hand causes you to sin cut it off.” Julian’s guilt manifests itself in key moments of the story. He fails to kill his brother’s killer because his brother was by all accounts a monster. He fails to kill Chang’s son and kills the assassin he was working with. He fails to protect his mother. He is only interested in his hands, stained with the blood of his father. Refn fills most of the scenes with Julian in red light. Dark rooms with shafts of red spilling in, cloaking Julian’s face and body with a dark red resembling blood. Form and content are in perfect unison here. Refn uses the color red to depict Julian’s obsession with the blood on his hands. Eventually, he gets punished for his sins in the most perplexing scene of the film. Yet it shouldn’t be because Refn has foreshadowed this conclusion. In the final sequence (before Chang’s karaoke performance in his favorite bar) Julian approaches Chang, extends his hands. Chang takes out his sword and prepares to exact his righteous judgment upon the sinner.
This film about punishment and revenge also has a global-capitalist reading to it as well. Julian and Billy are white expatriates from America using Bangkok as a refuge and sexual playground. Crystal comes to mourn her son’s death and sell heroine and cocaine. She tries to take over Bangkok by ordering various hits against Chang and his family. But, he cannot be defeated. Chang kills the foreigners that are ruining his land.
Aside from the Judeo-Christian, Freudian, and geopolitical themes that the film entertains it is also a terrific example of a revisionist genre film whether it is revises the neo-noir genre or the gangster genre. Refn’s film reminds me of the work by Seijin Suzuki just before he was fired from Nikkatsu studios for making Branded to Kill (1967). I’m surprised the studio didn’t fire him after Tokyo Drifter (1966) but I’m certainly glad they didn’t because we might not have got his final Nikkatsu film. Both films are masterpieces and should be seen by everyone. The reason why I’m mentioning Suzuki’s films in this context because Refn plays with genre in a similar way that Suzuki did. Both directors require the audience to be familiar genre which is then called upon only to cancel itself else for formal and narrative experimentation. The two Suzuki films mentioned above depend upon previous knowledge of Yakuza films to fill in the narrative gaps that the films are leaving out. Only God Forgives calls upon gangster and neo-noir tropes only to brush them aside for his formal experimentation and Freudian/Christian narrative he is telling. Refn doesn’t show us all of the typical gangster/neo-noir/revenge film cliches but instead focuses on the violence and obsession with redemption.
Refn depiction of violence in the film differs greatly from his previous collaboration with Drive. The Driver character was sensitive and sure of himself. He knew he was doing the right thing and tried his best to save his neighbors. His violence against criminals was justified by his characterization and the story. We wanted to see him defeat the criminals, smash their faces in an elevator after he shares a tender moment with Carey Mulligan. After two of the action scenes Gosling is covered in blood and slowly looks off screen, looking dangerous and lovable at the same time. Only God Forgives punishes the audience with its violence. There is nothing to enjoy and no one to root for when someone is killed. It’s almost as if all of the aesthetic gratification the audience of Drive enjoyed is now being taken away and the audience is now punished for enjoying it (much like how Scorsese used violence in Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995)).
There are many perplexing scenes in this film. Some of them I can’t figure out at all while others I think will make more sense on a second and third viewing. Only God Forgives will get better on a second and third viewing while Drive might get stale after awhile. The tone and atmosphere of Refn’s latest film is brooding, intense, and full of dread. There is nothing to enjoy in this film except for Refn’s formal innovation and revision of an old film genre.