‘Only God Forgives’: Ryan Gosling stars in Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘darkest and most oblique’ film
In Nicolas Winding Refn’s surrealist revenge thriller Only God Forgives, Julian (Ryan Gosling, of Refn’s Drive) and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) run a Muy Thai boxing academy in Indonesia. The place is a front for a drug-smuggling operation. Both brothers are criminally sadistic, but Billy is truly unhinged. In the first ten minutes of Only God Forgives, he attempts to buy sex with the twelve-year-old daughter of a brothel owner. When denied this particular fetish, Billy rapes and arbitrarily murders a young female prostitute.
The police arrive on the scene led by captain Chang (veteran actor and Thai fighting master Vithaya Pansringarm), but as portrayed in Only God Forgives, Chang is an avenging angel, endowed with the ability to know the truth and mete out justice either swiftly or brutally – or both. Needless to say, Only God Forgives is a controversial film, and not director Nicolas Winding Refn’s first of its kind. It’s also a remarkably good thriller. But I don’t believe in god, so that’s easy for me to say.
Only God Forgives and misogyny in Nicolas Winding Refn’s films
There is a good deal of misogyny in Refn’s films and Only God Forgives is no exception. Nearly all of the women in the film are sex workers who are never treated or referred to kindly. Then there is Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays Julian’s mother, a haughty but poet-less Lady Macbeth with a foul mouth and an evil heart. Upon hearing that her son Billy was killed for raping and murdering a young girl, she responds, “I’m sure he had his reasons.” It’s a delicious line spoken by a malevolent being. In fairness, Refn is at heart a horror movie fanboy, and horror movies, however sophisticated, have never been bastions of feminism.
David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky influences
Curiously, not a lot happens in Only God Forgives. Every scene is captured in long surreal takes where everyone moves very deliberately. The scenes are lit primarily in red, blue, or green, and feature sparse uncoded dialogue. Its unambiguous, terse speech notwithstanding, Only God Forgives could be called Lynchian. Indeed, Nicolas Winding Refn’s thriller has shades of Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Mulholland Dr., and Lost Highway – but it’s the Chilean-French surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky that Refn refers to most directly, particularly in those moments that speak to the spiritual or imply otherworldliness. Of course, David Lynch has been referring to Jodorowsky for 40 years, so the linage comes by legitimately.
In any case, Only God Forgives is more Freudian than anything else. Refn is directing with his id, impulsively unchecked and unfiltered. When things do happen in the movie they are remarkably sadistic. And although we see less on screen than is implied, plenty is shown. Chang is adept with a short sharp sword that he seems to draw from thin air, and that he uses to dispatch justice. And justice is often of the eye-for-an-eye sort, though it’s limbs the police captain usually severs.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘blue period of filmmaking’
Only God Forgives is the darkest and most oblique of what I’ve taken to calling Nicolas Winding Refn’s “blue period of filmmaking.” Thus far, it includes his entire career. Each of his movies has been a spiral into a black hole of despair, self-loathing, and/or nightmares, including the oft-imitated and eventually remade Pusher series (check out Luis Prieto’s Pusher), and the little-seen but very well-received Fear X, a descent into horror starring John Turturro that has become a cult favorite among the Fangoria set.
Of note, the title of Only God Forgives is to be taken literally. The slight, provocative plot and the film’s precise characterizations are meant to accentuate this idea: only god forgives. Everything that happens on screen advances this premise.
Ultimately, Only God Forgives is a simple, violent movie that has divided audiences as Refn’s films are prone to do. It was walked out on at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was in the running for the Palme d’Or. Only God Forgives did win the top prize at the Sydney Film Festival, but Aussies are deliberately contrarian.
I saw Only God Forgives at the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival, where a small contingent left in evident contempt, mumbling something about “self-indulgent crap.” This even after the director himself introduced the film as a project imagined through a “sleepless three-day meth binge,” which, to me, seemed a fair enough warning.
Only God Forgives (2013). Dir. & Scr.: Nicolas Winding Refn. Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Gordon Brown, Tom Burke, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Pitchawat Petchayahon, Charlie Ruedpokanon.
Ryan Gosling Only God Forgives photo: RADiUs-TWC.