*Huge spoilers ahead*
After being prepped by Nicholas Winding Refn’s most ‘arty’ film Valhalla Rising, I decided to delve into the latest Ryan Gosling movie! As it happens, I find calling Only God Forgives a Ryan Gosling movie fairly hilarious, since I cannot help but imagine throngs of girls feeling absolutely crestfallen by his character in this movie. The enigmatic badass of Drive has been whisked away, and replaced by a pathetic, envious and conflicted individual with huge mummy issues. More on this later…
Only God Forgives is being met with lukewarm reception, with its few advocates being accused of trying to cling on to just about anything to save this sinking ship of a movie. For my part, I feel very conflicted in my reaction to it; in that I found it fairly unpleasant and boring to watch, but upon reflection and further reading, think that it is trying to do something very difficult. Maybe it doesn’t completely succeed, but the best it can be called is ambitious.
Julian (Ryan Gosling) is running a Thai boxing club in Bangkok with his brother Billy (Tom Burke). It quickly becomes obvious that this club is a front for drugs and that Billy is not a very nice person. This is, perhaps, established when he runs amok smacking women around the face in a brothel and then brutally murders a fourteen year old girl who is being prostituted by her father. Retired police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) arrives on the scene, giving the father the option to exact vengeance on Billy, which he swiftly takes, with no gore being spared. So goes the first ten minutes.
This is the event the plot of Only God Forgives hinges on. Julian and Billy’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Thailand and demands that Julian avenge his brother’s death, setting into motion a set of killings and counter-killings that fill that central segment of the movie.
As Julian’s and Chang’s paths gravitate toward one another, we learn more of Julian’s fraught past including the fact that he murdered his father with his bare hands. In the finale, Chang kills Crystal and upon seeing the body, Julian does what every grieving son would do: he slashes open her stomach and put his hands inside her womb.
After this episode, Julian seems somewhat calmer and meets with Chang, who promptly cuts off Julian’s hands with his sword. Chang then sings a traditional Thai song. Fin.
It’s certainly a perplexing plot arc. It is at different points dull, gratuitous, unnecessary, mesmerising, bemusing and seems strangely lacking in something. What that something is, is character. At least, in terms of motives and an understanding of past events. Refn makes very little use of explanatory dialogue in Only God Forgives, instead quite superficially showing us a string of incomprehensible actions. All effect, no cause, in other words.
Twinned with this, is a plot that does not take follow a conventionally satisfying structure. Many events seem invested with a little significance, and most of it can be described as a string of gratuitously violent episodes.
Upon finishing the movie therefore, you just feel a bit empty. I wouldn’t say I felt like I wasted my time (there are certainly some redeeming features) but that the film hadn’t invested events with any kind of personal importance or built up any sympathy for Gosling’s character.
However, it is when you start recounting the story yourself in your own head that it starts to have impact. Julian’s character is the essential key to this movie, but it remains inscrutable until the final scenes. The film meanders because we cannot divest the scenes with any meaning, and we cannot do that because we have very meagre means of appreciating Julian’s motives.
This is a piece of cinema that is drawing attention to one of cinema’s limitations as a primary visual medium. How do you capture the inner demons of a near-mute introvert without resorting to interior monologues or other characters’ input? Only once we find out that Julian killed his own father and was intensely jealous of his brother’s sexual relationship with his mother (!), do the Oedipal building blocks fall into place.
I must credit Chris Stuckmann’s incredible reading of the movie for this: that Julian quite literally has blood on his hands. And plunging his hands into his mother’s womb could signify an attempt to expunge the guilt for his father’s murder. This doesn’t work directly, but Julian takes repentance into his own hands after his mother’s death, having Chang remove the tools that did the deed. With his hands severed, Julian can proceed with a life free from guilt: he has received his forgiveness.
In a movie where the audience are tasked with constructing the main character’s back story, there are bound to be divergences of opinion and interpretation. There are also those who are bound to say that a movie that doesn’t sufficiently explain itself within the confines of its run-time is a failure or else, lazy.
The reason that this movie isn’t a failure however, is that although I was less than enthralled during it; I was thinking about it on the bus to work the next day. I was thinking about it at work. I was thinking about it for days after in fact. Sometimes a film needs the viewer’s supplement to complete it, which in the case of Only God Forgives results in a haunting experience.
And I think I just reviewed a Nicholas Winding Refn film without even mentioning the cinematography. It’s jaw-dropping, go figure.