So it’s important to make something quite clear–Only God Forgives is nothing like its predecessor. A mean, sinister crime film, Only God Forgives absolutely forgoes traditional narrative sequencing in favor of methodical mise en scene and visual metaphors. If Gosling’s muted performance as Driver drove some people crazy, then they may be inclined to chuck the DVD of Only God Forgives out of a window as Gosling’s Julian spends nearly the entire film in silence. It’s as “artsy fartsy” as a movie can get, the complete antithesis of Drive in nearly every fashion. But is it a good movie? For those willing to keep an open mind, then yes, Only God Forgives is every bit as good as the far more accessible Drive. The film drips with atmosphere, as it leads viewers into the merciless and frightening world of Bangkok through the lens of Refn’s camera.
But like most of the director’s work, Only God Forgives is essentially a crime film. Julian (Ryan Gosling), is an American thug who runs an underground muay thai club in Bangkok, tasked with avenging the death of his brother Billy (Tom Burke). When he learns that Billy was killed at the hands of a grieving father in retaliation for the rape and murder of his daughter, Julian begins to wonder whether his brother did deserve to die. This existential crisis is exacerbated by the arrival of Julian’s vulgarity-spewing mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas). Unsurprisingly, Only God Forgives is an incredibly gruesome film, containing an ugliness that is pervasive throughout the film. Yet, there’s something utterly hypnotic about the film; Forgives retains the stylish tendencies of Drive, as its world is often cast in dark, sinister colors. Even in its brutality, Only God Forgives is an incredibly gorgeous movie that captures its nigh apocalyptic atmosphere with ease.
Only God Forgives is pure cinema, relying almost entirely on framing, lighting, and sound to move its story forward. Even Julian’s silence does quite a bit to progress his character. While at its core, Forgives is very much a pulpy crime drama, it’s clear that the film has more on its mind, continuing the meta-criticism of male-driven caricatures in cinema that was found in Drive. Where the earlier film deconstructed the myth of the action film-hero, relating him to a man-child who responds to threats with a disturbing escalation of violence, Only God Forgives provides a darker continuation of that thread, pondering the need of revenge being ingrained in the male-driven hero. Julian’s silence betrays his weakness; he is impotent–both physically and mentally.
Castration is a theme that is predominant in the film’s structure. Julian’s hands double for his own male genitals, a concept made quite literal in a scene in which Julian has his hands tied down while he watches a hooker masturbate herself in front of him. Close-ups of Julian’s hands act as a visual motif, a suggestion that Julian’s masculinity is separate from his own being. No doubt, Julian’s own mother has much to do with his state of being; Kristin Scott Thomas crashes into the picture, where each word and curse uttered from her mouth is like lightning crackling in the sky. Crystal is enraged that her son refuses to protect the interests of the family, spitting insults that serve to further emasculate Julian. Crystal feels like she would be more at home in the hyper-masculine settings of The Sopranos or Goodfellows, which makes her personality an interesting contrast to the quiet nature of the rest of Forgives.
Crystal soon sets her sights on Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the person who sanctioned her son’s murder. Like Julian, Chang spends a large majority of the film in silence, only allowing a few moments of dialogue in his mother tongue. But his presence says far more about him than words ever could. Chang is clearly the “God” in the title of the movie; he moves with spiritual efficiency, casting out punishment to those he believes deserve it. But there’s an inhuman quality to the man which makes it increasingly hard to view Chang as the “good guy.” Even Julian, who is morally ambiguous, seems to be in conflict over what is right. In Chang’s eyes, he alone determines what is right and wrong. And so the meaning of the film’s title changes from one of hope to one nearing arrogance: Only Chang has the capacity of “forgiving” us sinners.
Regardless of its qualities, Only God Forgives is a movie that will divide viewers on its legitimacy. Is it a ponderous crime film on the act of violence, or is it a pretentious mix of junk from a self-important director? If anything, Only God Forgives is worth watching just because it’s so different than the norms of traditional Hollywood storytelling.