Only God Forgives (2013)

Director Nicholas Winding Refn completely blew me away with his 2011 crime thriller “Drive.” It was a cerebral and stylish picture about redemption and atoning for our sins. “Only God Forgives” is that perfect film for cinematic enthusiasts looking for the right experimental movie to dip their toes in to. While Nicholas Winding Refn had every reason to follow “Drive” up with something equally mainstream, “Only God Forgives” goes beyond expectations.

Probably his most divisive film to date, “Only God Forgives” is below mainstream, and beyond the average revenge thriller you’ll see in theaters. It barely covers revenge at all, so much as it views the aftermath of revenge. From the first few minutes where Refn opens the film up on a Thai credits and title sequence, I thought to myself “This is not Drive at all.” For many that will be a welcome surprise, and for others it will be a crushing disappointment. Refn doesn’t seek to double the success and instead offers a subtle, cold, visceral, and extremely polarizing cinematic experience you’ll admittedly either really enjoy or absolutely loathe. It took me a long time after the film was done to decide how I felt about it.

It took discussions with other movie fans to really figure out that I really quite enjoyed it. The film is cold, and bleak and lacking any sense of hope or consolation. It’s about emasculation and parentage, two themes that resonate throughout the entirety of “Only God Forgives.” Ryan Gosling who shone in “Drive” barely has a role here, and is only instrumental to key scenes that actors like Kristin Scott Thomas steal away. Gosling as character Julian spends most of his time gazing in to space, completely disinterested in his boxing gym that he owns as a front for a major drug ring. For the majority of his time in his gym, he sits with his back turned, mulling over his business.

When his brother murders an underage prostitute in a brothel, he is murdered by the girl’s father by permission of the local law enforcement Lt. Chang, who takes it upon himself to dole out judgments for his suspects. After allowing the father to kill Julian’s brother, he punishes him by chopping his hands off with his sword. This justice is dealt throughout the entirety of the film as Refn follows parallel journeys of both entities of vengeance. One man considers himself an angel of vengeance intent on destroying those who caused the death of the underage girl. Julian on the other hand not only seeks revenge, but spends most of his time trying to figure out why he even wants revenge.

Kristin Scott Thomas is a brilliant villain of the piece who storms in to every single setting with a villainous stride, and then embarks on a rather breathtaking monologue in which she not only exposits the motivation behind the revenge, but reveals the horrific hold she had on both of her sons. Her unusual speech about son Julian’s jealousy of his brother’s enormous penis is wrought with oedipal ambiguity, all the while Julian basically allows her to take any and all pride and self respect he has. When she expresses disgust toward Julian’s escort’s attire, Julian literally forces her to undress in the middle of a street. The key scene to “Only God Forgives” is the fist fight between Julian and Lt. Chang.

Though both men have their motivation for their mission of revenge, Julian lost his pride and absolute motivation for anger a long time ago, and suffers no end of punishment from Chang. Chang, unlike Julian, seems to know who he is as a man (especially with his phallic sword), and also has a clear idea of why he’s pursuing vengeance. In the end, Refn’s film is beautifully shot and harbors some of the most incredible photography of his career. He shoots most of the film through tones of reds and occasional greens, and never opts to hold the audiences hands through most of the film. “Only God Forgives” is steeped in undertones and symbolism right down to the final scene involving Lt. Chang’s sword, and it’s definitely an artistic dissection of a sub-genre often simplified and stylized.