(this analysis originally appeared at: http://jacquelinevalencia.com/2013/07/23/only-god-forgives-my-analysisreview/)
My one problem with Only God Forgives was that it was sold as a hyper violent action, kickass fight flick with an intelligent twist. It’s not. It’s hyper violent and intelligently done. There’s little fighting in it though and you’re not going to get a hero. Looking back at a history of Nicolas Winding Refn flicks, who wouldn’t expect something akin to the Pusher trilogy with a dash of Bronson and Drive? Refn is auteur who is not just an art house director, but a continual film fan/student. Therefore, like with most of the riskier directors these days (ie. Steve McQueen, Shane Carruth…I’m just thinking of films I’ve seen recently), Refn utilizes influences while still pushing boundaries within them. More on that later. Refn’s own explanation for the basis of this film:
“The original concept for the film was to make a movie about a man who wants to fight God. That is, of course, a very vast obstacle but when I was writing the film, I was going through some very existential times in my life – we were expecting our second child and it was a difficult pregnancy – and the idea of having a character who wants to fight God without knowing why very much appealed to me. With that as the concept, I elaborated by adding a character who believes he is God (Chang), obviously the antagonist, with the protagonist being a gangster who is looking for religion to believe in (Julian). This itself is, of course, very existential because faith is based on the need for a higher answer but most of the time, we don’t know what the question is. When the answer comes, then, we must backtrack our lives in order to find the question. In this way, the film is conceived as an answer, with the question revealed at the end.” 1
For those of you who haven’t seen the film, but are still reading this analysis: Julian (Ryan Gosling) is an American working at a boxing academy in Thailand. It’s not entirely sure if he’s a former boxer, but it’s implied in his knowledge of boxing and his mother saying, “He was never a good fighter.” His brother, Billy (Tom Burke), has a penchant for brutalizing people, especially underage girls, and he works there too. Billy goes too far one night and murders a sixteen year old prostitute. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), an inexorable chief officer, brings in the girl’s father and instructs him to kill (to put things right), Billy. Chang then amputates girl’s father arm (by an ever hidden, yet present, sword) to atone for his sins (sins being that his daughter shouldn’t have become a prostitute in the first place). Julian finds the girl’s father for revenge, but let’s him go after being told of Billy’s own deeds. Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), appears and upon hearing of Julian’s inability to deal vengeance, looks for it herself by hiring her drug goons to do it for her. Julian is a man in search of God/religion/spirituality. His brother lacked all sense of morals, was a lowlife who beat up and murdered a child. Chang is a police official who is godlike and believes in putting things right karmically, at least in his own sword loving version of karma. So let’s start there: Julian searches for God and finds it in Chang.
Chang is an interesting character. He’s superhuman: in a scene where he uses his sword to kill a man who was hired to shoot him, he cuts right through his rib cage in one swift motion (you can see his ribs sticking out as the blood spurts from his carcass). Chang also senses when things are about to happen and has a heightened sense of perception: he feels danger before gunfire erupts at a restaurant; with one look at Julian he knows that he wasn’t the one that killed the dead girl’s father. He’s calm. He’s cool. Chang is a collected man. He’s badass evil Highlander.
The biggest clue is that hidden sword. Where does he hide it? Before we ever see him pull it out, Refn gives us many shots of Chang’s back. There’s no holster. There’s no bump to see where he’s pulling it out of his shirt and jacket. There’s no way Chang can pull the sword out that cleanly through a collared shirt and the collared suit on top of it. It’s either an invisible, magical ethereal sword, or the sword doesn’t exist (which, when you think about it, maybe Chang since he’s a godlike figure, maybe doesn’t exist either).
Julian sees Chang in a vision before he even meets him. Chang appears in a black doorway (reminiscent of the all encompassing black of Kubrick’s monolith from 2001), and amputates Julian’s arm as he reaches out. Later, when Julian sees Chang in person, he watches him greet the children from the boxing academy (they bow down to him in either reverence or respect). As Chang passes Julian he says, “He isn’t the one,” and keeps walking. The camera goes right to Julian, his chest visibly heaving while his eyes open wide with a sort of wonder and admiration. He’s just met God and as he stands there in the lobby of the boxing academy the audience perceives Julian’s bellicose stance: Julian wants to fight God. In turn, Julian gets the chance to fight God (“Wanna fight?”), he loses to him, almost on purpose, making himself humble before his God/father/circumstances.
Is Julian in hell? Maybe just a version of it. The colors of the film are saturated red, green and yellow with hints of green (Refn is somewhat color blind, but highlights natural color to give an allusion/contrast of realism versus imagination). I gave up on looking for symbolism with the colors because they were inconsistent. At first I thought that blue was a sexual situation, but then red becomes the focus more when Julian watches his prostitute/hired girlfriend, Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam), masturbate in front of him. I believe the colors here are mostly stylistic in nature. Cinematographer Larry Smith (was a gaffer for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, chief of lighting for Barry Lyndon, and lighting cameraman for Eyes Wide Shut, and cinematographer for Bronson and Fear X), almost pays tribute to Kubrick through the intense reds and fluid panning shots along walking subjects. The camera holds steady on focus to the characters while the background looms bright, illuminating filigree more like tarot card portraits of elementals rather than humans. These can be seen as character snapshots, but they’re meant to be more of a visual feast. Refn is also highly influenced by Martin Scorsese:
He once stated that his greatest source of inspiration is Martin Scorsese and his films. As a salute to him, he used the main theme from Scorsese’s Casino (1995) in the opening sequence of Bleeder (1999). 2
The famous massacre scene from Taxi Driver is referenced with the spurting gore in which the red of the blood is sometimes neutralized by blue or hyper dark lighting. When the violence happens, it is alarming and abrupt. I see a lot of the Taxi Driver anti-hero in both Drive and Only God Forgives, but what most people forget are that these anti-heroes are psychopaths. This is the brilliance of both Scorsese and Refn: to make a character that is disturbingly relatable. Peripherally, Only God Forgives can be seen as a revenge flick, but in reality it’s the existential tale of a murderous psychopath in search for God. As told by Crystal, Julian killed his father with his own hands under her direction. I’m not entirely sure (maybe due to Gosling’s lack of emotion), but he does seem to express a desire for redemption. Since he can’t seem to come to terms with his existence or what he has done himself, “only God forgives” and only God can give him that absolution. He has Mai tie his hands before she masturbates for him. Julian clenches his hands continuously like a man unable to control his urges and fighting with the monster (the psychopath) within. Hints to his mother inappropriate relationship with her sons are littered throughout the film. Instead of having sex with Mai, Julian envisions himself probing her with his hand (the hand that gets cut off in the vision), and in turn uses that hand to penetrate the wound he inflicts on his dead mother. The same soft lilting music wells up during these scenes alluding to a need for love, a need for a mother, a need for a purpose beyond Julian’s inner demons. In the end, his never ending visions become somehow true as he feels the innards of his mother/where he came from, the birth of a monster, creates a hyper real dream: he gets both of his fists amputated by a worthy god. Why? Either to keep him from becoming who he truly is or for ultimate redemption.
Many critics have complained of Gosling’s and the rest of the cast’s lack of expression. Some may see it as a blank canvas, a mask that can inhabit our own anxieties. Scary, if you enjoyed this film, is that this effect makes it more comfortable for the audience to place themselves in Julian’s shoes, then want to immediately step out, then go hide themselves in Chang shoes, and immediately run away from that too. You keep away from Crystal. You…you just do.
I usually have an issue with the Lady Macbeth trope. It’s overused and an easy way for directors or storytellers to create sympathetic beasts. However, Thomas is a relish to watch. She plays that character like she invented her and slashes and dices with words the way Chang does with his sword.3 Crystal who goes out of her way to go beyond the archetype or trope. She’s the one who begins this mad chain of events. I’ve never cheered for such an evil character and when she spits out “cum-dumpster” at Mai, I almost leapt to my feet. I don’t know why, I just felt compelled to. Crystal got under my skin. I get what Refn was creating here with Crystal, and I’ve yet to see him “get women right.” They’re either pure evil or pure helpless waifs. I suspect Refn of misogyny.
(“It’s like pornography. I’m a pornographer. I make films about what arouses me. What I want to see. Very rarely to understand why I want to see it and I’ve learned not to become obsessed with that part of it.” 5
(Read the rest of that article and tell me you don’t think he might be too.)
I have no problem with pornography (Porn is awesome!). But if we’re thinking of Refn struggling with inner demons and using women in his films to either “save” or “as emasculating bitches,” as a pornography then we can suspect what those demons may be.) The reason I don’t have a problem with this trope here is because Thomas portrays her character as an entirely self-made person. Sure, she’s a villainous, vengeful drug dealer, but she’s her own boss. She snakes through each of her scenes like she owns the whole production and for that, it’s a commendable performance. Magical realism is a big part of Only God Forgives and this maybe the main tribute to his friend, director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Almost every scene has a distorted reality. In some scenes, Julian wears a white shirt and then is seen with a black shirt/suit. People sometimes glide instead of walk. Characters stare at each other for extended periods of time, almost as if they are relaying intuitive messages to each other.
Where Jodoroswky goes all alchemy and scatalogical, Refn goes incestual and bloody violent. Actors are merely devices to a larger picture, but the picture, although dreamlike is all too real and archetypal that it’s hard not to try find meaning within the transfixing images these directors focus on. While Julian lives in his version of hell on Earth, Chang is a supernatural being outside of the world like God would be, yet their conflicts become less about plot devices and transform into the base ideals/horrors within ourselves. This all makes the film more like a hermetic exegesis of a tarot card reading more than a story and that’s why I loved it. The Cliff Martinez score is rife with Wendy Carlos love, it’s not even funny; it’s amazing. Just give me scenes with any of these characters, or just even Eyes Wide Shut hallways, violins, and Kraftwerk synthesizers and I am so there forever (make sure to splice Kristen Scott Thomas saying “cum-dumpster”). I’m running out to get the soundtrack as soon as I can. Should I touch on the infusion of karaoke? Chang sings and his minions listen attentively, almost appreciatively. The scenes are very David Lynch (another influence that is seen and is also mentioned in the credits). I don’t see it so much as a contrast or as detail to Chang’s “softer” side, but rather since besides being God and stuff, he’s also an angel of vengeance, he must sing and sing like an angel. The scenes in the karaoke bar are still. No violence occurs inside of them. It’s God’s sanctuary and all are invited, but only God can sing.
So as you can tell, I really enjoyed Only God Forgives (as I’ve seen it two times in two days). I could have hated it if I was expecting an action revenge flick, but I wasn’t. I expect risky directors to push the bar and bounce from the foundations they’ve set. I honestly would like to see Refn do something better with women. I know he was interested in doing Barbarella and Wonder Woman, but seeing as those are both seen as more sexual beings than “heroes” I hold little hope for that. I do enjoy Refn films because when I see film, I see gender as a secondary thing and in my head can easily place a woman in Julian’s shoes. I think it’s frightening for a lot of people to see a Julienne, raped by her father, become a psychopath searching for her God. She wants her hands chopped off for killing her mother and in the end, she violates her father and vision quests the demons out of herself or becomes a true killing machine. See? It’s not so hard. Just too risky, perhaps.***************************************************
3. I admit to giggling every time I typed “his sword.” I’m not sorry.