Cannes was not kind to Only God Forgives. Yet, Nicolas Winding Refn is not a director who requests niceties. He has facetiously called himself a pornographer, which is not literally true; however in Only God Forgives he allows his camera to linger on dialogue empty scenes so long, that it might seem invasive and gratuitous. While this film might provoke some viewers to recoil, it is a bold, stylish and strangely meditative thriller, which speaks with figurative brilliance about the loss of sexual innocence and the violence of the adult world.
Literally speaking though, Only God Forgives takes place in Bangkok, Thailand. A stoic Ryan Gosling plays Julian, an US expat, boxing club owner and drug smuggler. Julian’s brother Billy (Tom Burke) is murdered by gangsters, after he murdered a sixteen-year-old prostitute. The gangsters are advised by the devilishly God-like swordsman Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm.) Billy’s death ushers in the arrival of their mother Crystal (played brilliantly by a nauseating Kristin Scott Thomas), who arrives from the US to see Billy’s body. Crystal and Chang initiate a whirlwind of violence, stemming from her monstrous, sexualised angst and his brutal discipline.
At its heart Only God Forgives is a deeply Oedipal film about two men dealing with their mother’s sexual depravity; a depravity that may stem from the violent death of her husband. Crystal claims to have had a particularly “special” relationship with deceased son Billy (in one memorable scene she describes his penis as “enormous”) and yet Julian seems sidelined, impotent, and childlike (hence Gosling’s ruthlessly low-key performance.) Like his mother, Billy was also sexually deviant; his ultimate fantasy involved abusing minors. Julian seems traumatised by his own family, as well as his failings to impress and satisfy his mother (and the prostitute he pays to see regularly,) so he trades his sexuality for his fists.
Visually Refn has created a unique orientalism, with which to locate the story. Shooting on the streets of Bangkok, as well in sets dressed to look like ornate brothels and grandiose boxing rings, Refn depicts a hellish, womb-like dreamscape. Shifts from location to location are not handled with clarity, but rather the viewer floats through the film (with the help of Cliff Martinez’s absorbing score) gradually being drawn in, or maybe repelled. Refn’s nightmarish visuals have frequently been compared to Gaspar Noé and David Lynch, but in terms of shooting style there is more in common with Takeshi Kitano’s violent minimalism. Side-on tracking shots recall ones from Refn’s own Bronson, but may actually be inspired by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s transgressive masterpiece The Holy Mountain.
Refn dedicates this film to Alejandro Jodorowsky and has described Only God Forgives as his “Jodorowsky film.” As with Jodorowsky’s films, Only God Forgives sets itself up as a challenge. It is a film that asks the viewer to dissolve completely into the subtext, rather than take each scene literally. Refn assembles scenes that comment on his Oedipal themes, rather than compel the narrative with plot. Ultimately the film discourages rational thought, asking for the viewer to metaphorically connect its ideas (male genitals are equated with fists, weapons serve to bring impotence & innocence, wounds are orifices for penetration, adults destroy innocence); this occurs in a manner like Jodorowsky’s rejection of logic, inspired by Buddhist koans.
By coupling its psychosexual themes and meditative style (and some rousing karaoke numbers from Chang), Only God Forgives finally betrays a tragic hilarity. As Julian propositions Chang with the words “wanna fight?” Chang looks judgingly at his crotch. This moment is protracted as if to summarise the film’s ideas about sex and violence and yet it also revels in the absurdity of Refn’s filmmaking. Only God Forgives may appear a challenging ninety minutes, but it is a bold stab at a different kind of storytelling, not without moments of Refn’s roughish showmanship.