Only God Forgives (2013) by Nicholas Winding Refn
Retro Review by Andrew Swafford
“I think I’m going to start avoiding violent movies.”
One of my friends said this to me yesterday afternoon in a conversation about recent police brutality, and for some reason we still ended up watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives later that evening. It was a questionable--not good or bad--choice. Refn’s follow up to 2011’s surprise smash hit Drive handles violence in an interesting way, as it both indulges the filmmaker’s most exploitation-driven power fantasies while challenging them with a sense of Old Testament-style justice that makes each violent act fall somewhere specific on a given spectrum of morality to truly mean something.
Only God Forgives stars Ryan Gosling as Julian, an American in Thailand who runs a kickboxing ring fronting for his mother’s drug empire back in the states. The entire family has blood on their hands, but perhaps the most obviously malicious is Julian’s brother, Billy, who rapes and murders a 16-year old Thai prostitute in one of the film’s opening scenes. This horrendous crime serves as a symbolic indicator of the family’s relationship to Thailand, as they are violating the space of the natives and violently exploiting their manpower all in the name of profit back home. The family’s Southeast Asian headquarters is set apart from Thailand’s more natural spaces in its opulent design and oppressively-red neon lighting, perhaps serving as a visual equivalent of blood and guilt. This is metaphorical colonialism in an action-genre-friendly nutshell, and it’s a premise that sets up a lot of plausible scenarios for acts of violence to unfold.
After Billy's clearly immoral action, viewers of Only God Forgives are then introduced to the character of Officer Chang, the film’s still and stoic spectre of justice who is introduced, according to the script, by being bowed to “like he’s a god” (for more on Chang as Literally God, see Chris Stuckmann’s video essay). Chang isn’t a very forgiving one, contrary to the film’s title, and believes in dishing out plenty of violence himself, but only when punishing violent acts (see: Sodom/Gomorrah, the plagues of Egypt, most other pages you might happen to randomly flip to in the Old Testament). Seeing the hellfire of evil in the world, he diligently works to extinguish it. Crucial to the character, though, is Chang’s fairness--he only inflicts pain upon those who have brought bodily harm to others--and his desire to see people reform themselves for the better. His offering of redemption is exemplified in the way he deals with the film’s initial rape/murder, when he gives the girl’s father (who sold his daughter into prostitution) a chance to take vigilante justice, but the man takes things too far by killing Billy outright. In the world of Only God Forgives, violence is plenty but exploitation and murder are unspeakable--therefore, Chang cuts off the man’s hand and reminds him to care for his three other, still living, daughters (presumably by not trafficking them).
Chang is an unchanging force to be reckoned with, and Refn’s camera mimics his measured stoniness with its meditative stillness and slow zooms that focus in upon singular subjects. Most viewers found the film’s pacing to be boring upon release, but that’s likely due to how anti-Hollywood and therefore anti-Western the film’s movement is. It feels much more like a super-violent Apichatpong Weerasethakul film than it does Drive, which seems to indicate solely through mood where his allegiance lies in this cultural conflict (also worth noting is that Refn himself has explained that he purposely set the film in Thailand because he sees it as “a gateway between West and East” and has described the film as “the anti-Drive”). The film’s patient, hardened style can best be seen in the third act when Chang has a fistfight with Julian, who is continuously lunging at Chang while the latter stays completely still and always reacts defensively rather than acting offensively. Focusing on a singular opponent and treating them with such even-handedness is what makes Chang’s approach unique in a film littered with aggressors who exist at different places along the morality spectrum Refn is working within.
If Chang represents the maximum goodness that can be done with violence, then Julian’s mother, Jenna, represents the absolute inverse (even worse in her subtlety than Billy). While she never physically assaults another character on screen, she creates institutions of violence instead (it is not accidental here that the drug cartel is fronted by none other than a kickboxing arena). Jenna is the lynchpin that keeps the family’s underground drug ring in existence and is characterized as extremely exploitative in the moments she shares with Julian, as it is heavily implied that she habitually violated both of her sons sexually throughout their childhood. When she gets the itch for revenge herself and sets out to kill Chang in vengeance for her eldest son, she hires Thai assassins with automatic weapons to indiscriminately shoot up a restaurant Chang is found eating in--treating both the shooters and the general public as disposable bodies for her to throw at a problem for the sake of self-interest (she also refers to the Thai people as “yellow n****rs,” in case you’re not sold on the idea of her as a white-supremacist).
Chang himself never uses violence in the haphazard and cruel way that Jenna does, as he instead takes great care to only bring pain to those who deserve punishment with no collateral damage. He also almost never kills his subjects, as he wants them to ultimately turn a corner and change for the better. There is one major exception to this rule: he mercilessly smites Jenna, who is clearly beyond help, a force of irredeemable evil and maybe even serving as the Lucifer to Chang’s God--if you want to plug her manipulativeness into a religious allegory.
I’ve purposely avoided saying much about Julian himself until now, as he is the most truly complex character in the film, standing alone in contrast between the static good of Chang and static evil of his mother. Julian is responsible for horrible things, including perpetuating the drug ring, psychologically abusing a prostitute who may or may not be his girlfriend, and acting erratically violent towards two men in a club for seemingly no reason. The camera continually focuses on framing his fists (always closed--even in sexual intimacy) to imply his violent past and present visually. However, the difference between Julian and his family members is simple: he’s repentant. Ryan Gosling delivers even less dialogue in this film than he does in Drive, silently reeling in Kierkegaardian guilt for the negative space he takes up in the world.
Julian's guilt isn’t pointless and infinite--it needs to be resolved through punishment, which Julian obviously yearns for. His major sex scene in this film, for example, is one of bondage play, in which Julian is tied up as a submissive to be dominated by his maybe-girlfriend. This type of punishment fetishization is not enough for Julian, however, and he spends most of the film getting the everliving shit kicked out of him (another way in which Only God Forgives is the anti-Drive--that film molded an 80s-style, patriarchal hero out of Gosling, and this one demolishes the sculpture). Julian ultimately--gratefully--offers up his hand(s) for Chang to cut off. If Chang plays the role of a deity in this film, this is perhaps why Refn calls Gosling’s character “a man searching for a religion to believe in.” The willfully lost hand(s) could even be a super-literalized moment of New Testament spirituality sneaking in, if you care to read it that way.
More or less, that’s the fundamental structure of of how violence is used as punishment in order to extinguish evil in Only God Forgives. And if you’re thinking if that sounds a little paradoxical (How can you use violence to end violence?) then you’re right. The morality system laid out in the film is bloody and archaic, absolutely--but I also think there’s plenty of ambiguity to explore here. Though Refn presents Chang’s God-like Eastern native as a force to eliminate Western exploitation and immorality here, it’s also equally possible to read this as a cautionary tale about the cycle of violence a la Macbeth. (There’s even an “out, damned spot” scene in which Julian washes his hands only to find blood coming from the faucets.) In the narrative we’re given, what begins as one man’s ill-exercised desire to get laid spirals out into dozens and dozens of brutal murders, all driven by the singular motive of revenge. Even Chang seems repentant every time he feels compelled to use physical force, and each one of his violent acts is followed by a melancholic musical number that is given the tone of a wake or confessional. The film ends with a particularly beautiful one of these scenes, meant to lift the viewer’s spirits out of the muck with a feeling of catharsis.
On Episode 100 of the Cinematary podcast, I nominated Michael Haneke’s Funny Games for Nathan Smith to watch in order for us to work through our differences in regards to film violence. I made the argument that Haneke’s film is one that treats violence with a dutiful and profound sense of morality, and I’d like to posit the same argument for this film to our readers. However extreme and horrifying the character of Chang would actually be in real life, I truly appreciate film’s meditation on the relationship between violence and even-handed justice--especially as we fight for an end to the former during a historical moment in which the culture of policing seems to be so lacking in the latter.