After much fanfare, Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film came out not with a bang, but with a whimper. Mostly criticized for its lack of depth, it appears to have momentarily placed the Danish director and Ryan Gosling on a Burton-Depp path of creative stagnation. However, Only God Forgives still has plenty of treats for film-junkies, while the ending credits referral to Alexander Jodorovsky offers thinking points for the Bangkok set action drama. As suggested by the title, the film embraces strong moral themes with violent detachment that suggests humans develop subjective views of right and wrong, leaving any superior entity only a spectator to the carnival of blood-shed that is life.
The story follows a family of drug smugglers that own a boxing arena searching for the killer of one of their brothers. All the ingredients are present for the film to be viewed as a neo-noir representation of the Bangkok crime scene and the classic cinematic artifices are all employed in this sense. Firstly, the black and white colour scheme is replaced by variations on red and blue which dominate the screen throughout the movie. The city is mired in darkness and narrow streets that form a maze for the characters, with the diegetic sound mainly used for punctuated footsteps, creating a sense of expectancy and heightened tension.
Also formally within the noir genre is the femme fatale character Crystal, the evil blonde mother that seeks to push Julian (Ryan Gossling) into murdering his brother’s killer. She is opposed by the classic ‘good girl’ Mai, who tries to reduce and replace the influence of the mother. The moral ambivalence of the characters is often emphasized with the use of shadows, with both Julian and Chang moving in and out of dark spaces. These two stand in opposition, emanating energy on the screen with full body shots that are linked to crescendos in the soundtrack. Julian’s role as a leader in his family group is matched by Chang (The Angel of vengeance), who is a spiritual leader of the police department, with a god-like persona that is adored by his colleagues. In classic noir tradition, the film ultimately looks at the main character’s struggle to reconcile good and bad and achieve spiritual unity.
Given that this is a movie that breaks the East-West divide, it is also interesting to look at the way the differences between characters follow those lines. In this respect, a clash between kitsch and cliché is neatly presented in Only God Forgives and the play between appearance and essence is important in reading this aspect. While Bangkok is filled with Chinese lanterns and cheap colourful spaces, all Thai characters present a strong sense of morality and family values. From the prostitute’s father who kills his daughter’s assassin, to the hit-man whose only concern is his son’s well-being, a sense of right and wrong permeates. Outside of whorehouses with art-deco interiors and Greek sculptures, there appears to be a singular understanding of ethics that is enforced by Chang.
On the other hand, Julian’s family is characteristic of a dysfunctional modern ‘unit’. With a dead father, a child abusing brother and a manipulative, perhaps incestual mother, their moral bankruptcy is evident in the mother’s dialogue, which jumps between vulgar and neurotic. These themes are all portrayed in very straightforward psychoanalytical narrative sequences that reek of ‘white’ insecurity and oppose the clean aesthetics of the mother’s hotel room. This clash between cultures offers Julian a space to go through a transformative journey that ends with his purification.
The last point and the unifying theory for the unfolding of the film appear with the dedication of the film to Alexander Jodorovsky. Firstly, we can look into the ways Refn borrows from the Chilean’s director supra-realist style to explain much of the performance of the characters. We also see the use of sound as a primary source of cinematic experience (tip!:close your eyes when Chang asks the girls to do so and see the results). More importantly however is Jodorovsky’s writing and experience as a tarot reader and his method of psychomagic. The technique relies on the psycho-genealogy (psychoanalysis that takes the family tree as the key aspect of therapy) of the subject that is targeted and then healed, based on the patient’s subjective superstitious beliefs. Under this lens, violence is the purifying agent, and Chang is the healer. Gossling’s character acknowledges Chang’s morality and pardons his brother’s killer after hearing what the Angel of Vengeance made him do. This sets up a spiritual link between the two main characters from the beginning, and Chang goes on to gradually kill all the negative elements in Julian’s life. Furthermore, Julian’s willingness to fight is in fact his preferred choice of superstition(that of archetypal male behaviour), his only means of communication, and the scene is followed by his salvation, as he stops his mother’s assassin from killing Chang’s daughter.
As Julian slowly moves closer to the Angel of Vengeance, he finds himself searching for the purification that his brand of justice offers, and finally accepts his punishment. While the Ryan Gosling school of deadpan acting might see a fall in applicants, Only God Forgives cannot be judged singularly on those standards (on which it mainly fails). Meant to be released soon after Valhalla Rising, it follows Refn’s thread of non-social violence explored through characters placed outside classic understandings of morality and offers a distinct tale of man’s resolution with his violent self.
by Paul Dunca
Paul Dunca is a freelance saboteur looking for a change of pace. He writes reviews and opinion pieces to keep appearances and can be reached at various wishing wells around London.