ONLY GOD FORGIVES is bizarre. It’s the story of an American drug dealer in Bangkok, whose cruel mother comes to help him find the men who killed his brother. Julian, played by Ryan Gosling, is impenetrable. He seems to live in a trance and wears a constant expression of sadness. Director Nicholas Winding Refn (BRONSON, DRIVE) blends Julian’s dream sequences with reality, and saturates the film with vivid colors and overwhelming sound. This creates a sort of ‘heightened reality,’ as he describes it. The result is profoundly disorienting.
Julian’s brother Billy was killed by a man named Choi, who had pushed his own daughter into prostitution. Billy hired his daughter, then beat her to death. Choi was allowed vengeance by Lt. Chang, who acts as an arbiter of justice throughout the film (the credits also refer to him as the Angel of Vengeance). Julian finds Choi, but when he hears about Choi’s daughter’s death, he lets the man go. This becomes a source of tension between him and his mother Crystal when she arrives in Bangkok.
Their relationship is troubled, to say the least. She is a harsh and manipulative woman who keeps her son on a tight leash. Refn bring us into Julian’s emotional world by making the film deliberately bewildering: the soundtrack’s booming bass is loud and rumbling (my upstairs neighbor had to ask me to turn it down) and vividly colored lighting creates a hyper-stylized look. The mood is somber and anxious. Characters move slowly and don’t talk much. Julian and Billy stare into space with looks of remorse. It’s like they are living in a world without joy.
As the camera pans steadily across the scenery or remains deathly still, every scene starts to feel like a funeral dirge. Refn’s jarring cuts overwhelmed me: in one moment, Julian and Billy are speaking somberly, their faces hidden in shadow, and in the next they stand by the brightly lit ring of Julian’s muay thai club surrounded by the uproar of a fight.
I felt like I was Julian as I watched. The dark tone and expressive imagery made me feel depressed, and its jarring noise and transitions made it hard for me to relax. As the story unfolded, I learned why Julian lives in this state fraught with overwhelming emotions, loneliness, and anxiety: he lives in fear of his mother, who is manipulative, withholding, and coldhearted. Her first line towards Julian in the film is, ‘Did you get the guy that did it?’ There is something sexually suggestive about the way she looks up at him that made me feel confused and uncomfortable. Julian tries to tell her why he let Choi go and she flies into a rage, moving from loving to spiteful in a split second. Julian looks stoic, but he is clearly cowering on the inside. Or maybe that’s just how I felt.
He carries around a great deal of guilt and anger. Despite the line of work he has found himself in, Julian is a sensitive and troubled soul. He wants his mother’s affection, which she uses to manipulate him at every turn. At a dinner together, Crystal is still angry about Julian’s decision not to kill Choi, so she uses his relationship with Billy to make him feel impotent. After comparing the sizes of their penises she states, ‘Billy was everything Julian wanted to be. Is that not true? Because let me tell you, if the tables were turned, your brother would have found your killer and brought me his head on a fucking platter!’
It is relentless and disgusting, and it made me feel sad and angry. Julian wears his sadness like a badge, but he can’t acknowledge how angry he feels at his mother. His sliver of hope that Crystal will eventually come around and act like a mother, which she also uses to manipulate him over the course of the film, is too precious for him to jeopardize through anger. Instead, he assaults strangers over imagined insults because so much rage boils inside him.
I watched the film twice, and my impressions were dramatically different. The first viewing captivated me. Refn’s use of expressive imagery and sound to generate intense emotional experiences reminded me of greats like EYES WIDE SHUT and MULHOLLAND DRIVE, though this isn’t nearly as good. The themes of parenting, longing, and betrayal lingered in my mind after I watched. I couldn’t see how all the pieces fit together, but that’s not the point. This film is about feeling.
When I watched it a second time, I tried to analyze the film with more depth. I looked for all the hints and clues that weave into Julian’s consciousness as depicted on screen. This made for a frustrating experience, because the film’s overwhelming sounds and imagery distracted me from these hints instead of having a powerful emotional impact on me. Watching a film like MULHOLLAND DRIVE multiple times is rewarding because Lynch adds so many wonderful details and mysteries that keep the experience new. ONLY GOD FORGIVES is only meant for one viewing; the intense violence and sadness shouldn’t be experienced twice.
The hardest piece to understand is Chang, who goes around meting out justice with his machete. In one scene, Julian dreams (imagines? fantasizes?) that Chang amputates his hand. Perhaps Chang represents the father figure responsible for punishment or justice. Early in the film we see Chang with his daughter, an innocent among violent people. This theme runs heavy throughout the film; when Chang goes looking for an assassin who plotted against him, Chang finds the man feeding his crippled son. He pleads, ‘I’m not afraid to face the consequences. I’m just asking you to spare my son.’
Refn seems to be asking whether these children will be poisoned by their parents’ violent behavior the way Julian was. Maybe that makes Chang a redeeming father, who amputates Julian’s hand as punishment for his crimes (watch the film to understand what I’m referring to here). But Chang is not satisfied if he isn’t in control. Whenever something challenges his moral hold on the Bangkok underworld, he becomes unsettled and cannot rest. This is depicted symbolically in scenes of Chang singing karaoke.
I don’t know what to make of it. ONLY GOD FORGIVES is a weird film. It’s about parenting, guilt, loss, and sadness. It’s full of graphic violence and overwhelming imagery. Refn’s expressionistic style gives some meaning to this ethereal narrative, which might otherwise be incomprehensible. It’s no masterpiece on the level of DRIVE, but it will reward open-minded viewers.