By Michael Kalafatis (Stoke on Trent)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Starring Ryan Gosling, Vithaya Pansringarm and Kristin Scott Thomas.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke) are American brothers who are thriving drug-smugglers in Bangkok, but things get complicated when Billy is found dead and Julian is compelled by his mother Chrystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to find the culprits. Which will lead Julian to tread the line between revenge, redemption and self-discovery in the neon lit Thailand, which carries a charming façade with ominous undertones that can make the most honest person cynical.
Only God Forgives is mainly about the family dynamics between Julian and his mother Crystal. They have an unnatural and very abusive relationship as more than once Crystal tells to Julian how inferior he is compare to Billy and how he always was envious and considered him his role model. in many occasions Nicolas Winding Refn shows Julian’s hands with open palms, showing how unable is Julian to properly react to the death of his own brother, he cannot go on a killing spree as his mother does, he is different from his heartless mother and his volatile brother.
Julian utters very few words in the film and most of the time he seems passive, and unable to react as an architype protagonist would in a typical crime thriller film because he is mentally and physically weak. Winding Refn by creating a character like Julian he manages to subvert the typical hero found in Hollywood films who is intelligent, brave and masculine, this is more evident when he challenges a police officer named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who investigate the case of Billy’s death to a fight, but he manages to gets beaten into a pulp while his female companion and his disapproving and disappointed mother observing his humiliation.
The poster and the trailer of Only God Forgives is misleading, Ryan Gosling character is not the protagonist of the film, as he is not the person whose narrative we relate or follow closely, we relate more with the police officer Chang/ Angel of vengeance who punishes all wrongdoing with the use of a short sword called “Kachin dha” , he is a righteous person a “God” who follows his own rules but also he is a karaoke enthusiast, who sings in front of his emotionless and quiet subordinates , the scenes that take place in the karaoke bar are very unsettling and eerie but at the same time they are the most normal scenes in a film filled with bizarre scenes of masturbation, premonitions and explicit gore scenes that will elicit very strong visceral feelings.
The musical score by Cliff Martinez is a very vital component in creating the atmosphere of the film as it incorporates ambient, classical and Thai music, creating a mixture of western and eastern music that unsettles and disturb in more than one occasion thus showing the duality of the film which is between righteousness and revenge, and how revenge can affect and manage to destroy lives because once the notion of revenge gets its grips on someone as dangerous as Crystal who retaliates in the most self-destructive way but this is juxtapose with the way Chang exacts revenge for the injustice that befell the people who are killed by Chrystal’s henchmen, a different kind of revenge because it carries more sympathy, Chrystal’s revenge is more cruel and apathetic, that is the main reason Julian hesitate to carry on her orders to kill senselessly everyone involve in the killing of his brother.
Nicolas Winding Refn in Only God Forgives wants to show how nihilistic and cynic the world is in both the underworld and the world of law enforcers as both worlds are preoccupied with revenge but the distinction between them lies in the way they exact their revenge which is the thing that eventually differentiate them. The underworld wants only to exact revenge at any cost even if it means killing innocent’s bystanders, Chang the police officer does the same thing towards the criminals even though not the subtlest way, as he plays judge, jury and executioner by wielding his sword and deciding which way to punish the wrongdoers, he is the titular God of the film’s title and even Refn in instructing Chang he always whispered in his ear “You are god”.
The style of Only God Forgives is reminiscent of Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void (2009) there is also hinds of David Lynch and Alejandro joborowsky influences that creeps in in various scenes. That is the reason the film is not very accessible to an audience unfamiliarly with these auteurs whose cinema likes to provoke and challenge its viewers, as cinema seen through their camera is not a passive entertainment but an intellectual exercise that its stimulation is derive in the analysis of themes, characters depiction and the milieu of the film.