*Note* This whole review/deconstruction was written the same night that I saw this film on VOD which was July 19th. If I have stuff on here that you’ve read elsewhere, it’s because I took too damn long to put this up.
Herein lie major spoilers for Only God Forgives.
I’ve followed Nicholas Winding Refn for a while now. First I saw his Pusher trilogy back in 2007, then the amazing Bronson which was the first Netflix Instant film I ever saw when I got it. I haven’t seen all of his films, but I know the man’s work. Drive is the only one I’ve actually seen in a theater, and I’m well known for not liking it very much. That film seemed to me to be Refn trying to marry an art film with commercial sensibilities. It was also marketed as an action film, and that it was not. Scenes of people just staring at each other with nothing at all occurring felt strange and not at all what I was expecting.
Only God Forgives is Refn forgoing commercial sensibilities and just flat out indulging his European roots with making a film that I can only describe as if David Lynch made what he thought an action film should be.
The influences are spread throughout the 90 minute runtime. Refn is heavily influenced by Gaspar Noe (who he thanks in the credits) by using neon lighting throughout the film, and Stanley Kubrick by framing lots of the shots in the film as if they were living paintings. The David Lynch factor is there as well by the film being very surreal and the Cliff Martinez score at times sounding like David Lynch mainstay composer Angelo Badalamenti’s type of music.
In the film we follow the character of Julian. Ryan Gosling plays a similar character to The Driver who does not speak very much and expresses no emotions. In Drive I felt there was no purpose to him being like that. Despite it being explained that he was a man who ran from a lot of problems and was prone to acting out. In Only God Forgives, I believe it serves a purpose. That purpose (and this is just my theory) is that Julian was sexually abused as a child by his Mother.
Mafia Godmother Crystal played by Kristin Scott Thomas appears to be the typical “cougar”. She dresses in provocative outfits that are more designed for younger women and at several points in the film displays a creepy “affection” for her sons. She says as much to Lieutenant Chang that Julian killed his Father with his bare hands and believed his Mother was having an incestuous relationship with his older brother Billy. Crystal also makes light of her sons’ penis size during a dinner with Julian and his “date”, Mai. Expressing that Billy’s was much larger than Julian’s, all the while Julian looks on not expressing even the slightest emotion. She also talks about him being jealous of her closer relationship with Billy. Furthering the hinted inappropriate relationship that she had with Billy.
Billy himself is a broken man. Constantly in a drug/alcohol induced stupor he goes at first to a high class whorehouse and asks for a 14 year old girl. The proprietor has none. Billy offers him money for the proprietor’s own daughter and he refuses. Billy then goes on a rampage beating all the women and the proprietor. This need for an underage girl may parallel the fact that he is emotionally stunted from his childhood abuse by his Mother. He feels that he can only relate to a young girl. Relating with violence once he finally gets that young girl.
Refn said he wanted the film to be a western in Thailand and he accomplishes that with “The Sheriff” in Lieutenant Chang. Lieutenant Chang along with his “deputies” that are constantly at his side dishes out his own kind of “frontier justice” in the form of an eye for an eye by letting the Father of the murdered girl beat Billy to death. This eye for an eye also goes back on the Father for knowingly letting his daughter fall into prostitution by cutting off his arm (his pound of flesh) as a reminder that he should treat his other three daughters well.
We also have a “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” scenario in reverse where Chang and his deputies are ambushed by assassins sent by Crystal by way of a middle man and he shoots off his revolver at them, killing one, and then taking off on foot after the other.
During the film there are constant shots of Julian’s hands. I theorize that due to his abuse, this is a double edged sword. He uses his fists for violence because he was made to use them in ways he did not want to when he was younger. He also does not have what one would refer to as a “normal” sex life. He does not have actual physical contact, and does not have a true relationship with a girl. He sees a prostitute that he pays for her time and she ties him to a chair while he stares on at her pleasuring herself while showing no emotional responses whatsoever. The tying down possibly alludes to him lashing out like his brother did during sexual contact because of his prior abuse, and his non-existent emotional responses are possibly due to having become desensitized by sex due to the abuse he suffered. He still feels the need to have some kind of sexual encounter, but he does it in such a way that he keeps his distance.
His hands also lead him to lashing out at random people such as the men who offer him whiskey at the club he’s at. This anger, intensified by the death of his brother and arrival of his hated Mother leads him to be even more unhinged than he already is.
Once Crystal enters the picture, it is clear that she dominates Julian. Much like she has probably dominated him all his life. He respects the Lieutenant. However she wants him dead for his part in the death of Billy. Near the middle of the film, Julian challenges Chang to a fight in his gym, and is thoroughly beaten by Chang who does not receive a single hit. This can be seen as Julian not fighting Chang, but fighting his Mother for all the years of emotional and physical abuse. His defeat signifying that he will never be out from under her control.
Near the end, once he discovers Crystal’s murdered corpse, he cuts open her stomach and puts his hand in there. This can be seen as his longing to return to the womb. The only safe place he ever knew. Then just before the end of the film, he has his open hands amputated by Chang. This finally frees him from the anger and violence within him, and thus giving Chang his “pound of flesh” offering for being complicit in the murder of Chang’s wife.
I didn’t want to structure this as a traditional review because the film itself is not traditional. It is full of beautiful surreal imagery mixed in with splashes of extremely graphic violence. My take on this film is exactly that. My take. This is what I saw in the film when I viewed it, and I very much recommend this film to any fan of European/Asian cinema, and fans of the films of Gaspar Noe, David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky (another person thanked in the credits), and John Hyams. I include John Hyams because his film that I’ve also reviewed for this site, Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning is very similar in feel and tone to Only God Forgives.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars