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What greater expression of the masculine condition?

I first saw Only God Forgives back in July. I have written three or four drafts of this review before scrapping them all, watching the film again, and finally sitting down to do it right. That may hype this review up or something so let me say outright that this isn’t my intention. I’m not even really sure if this review will be worth reading. Writing about Only God Forgives is one of the biggest challenges I’ve had since I first started doing film criticism.

The housekeeping for this film goes like this: it’s embarrassingly good. So if you know something about how controversial Only God Forgives is in critical circles, this will already help you classify me somewhere in that aegis. It’s not that this is a case where the controversy is bullshit. It’s obvious to me why Only God Forgives should inspire as much disgust as it does awe. Though he’s made similar films before, Nicolas Winding Refn has never been more in control of his considerable powers than he is here. From a purely cinematic standpoint, being the collusion of technical elements and raw craft, the mastery at work for this film is undeniable. To reject this is to indulge bullshit.

What’s left after is where people are in fierce disagreement. The content of the film. It’s meaning, if it has any, and the choices that were made in the telling of this story from the how to the why to the occasional what. So ephemeral as to seem obtuse, Only God Forgives is also as subversive a genre film as can be imagined. To the extent where I’m sure some find it unclear whether this is actually a genre film at all.

Like with Spring Breakers, I find myself in the position of apology for what I think is a questionable masterpiece. Give me the time and attention and I may be able to convince you with whatever persuasion and argumentation I can muster. At the same time, these are difficult and demanding films. They are also films that aren’t trying to win you over. They don’t care if you like them, in fact they are sort of counting on you not liking them. To shake you up, make you think, give you some emotional payoff especially if it isn’t the one you went in expecting.Only-God-Forgives-18

Though the plot is straightforward and simple, its significance and meaning for the characters go the other way.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) are drug smugglers living in Thailand. They run a boxing club as a front though Julian exhibits an affinity for the mystique of the Muay Thai kickboxer that Billy does not. Billy is a monster, we quickly learn, who rapes and kills women indiscriminately and probably suicidally. When he goes just a touch too far, he is caught out by the enigmatic Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a high-ranking police official who seems possessed of and empowered with his own sense of justice. Even early on, Julian has silent premonitions of a collision with this man, but probably more likely what he represents.

When we meet Julian and Billy’s mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas), the mystery of their behavior and Julian’s quiet psychological dysfunction starts to clear up. Crystal is a voracious, evil Jocasta to Julian’s Oedipus. Her vulgar sexualization of her sons is only matched by their devotion to her. Julian is utterly helpless to do more than slightly derail Crystal’s desire for revenge. This would be a proper revenge film if not for Julian being on the wrong side. He knows what Billy did and he knows that Chang is probably out of their league. Emasculating him and taunting him, Crystal accepts no excuses while campaigning to have Chang killed.

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But Chang isn’t so easy to kill.

Even Julian’s sexual proclivities are best understood in the context of his mother. Is it Crystal’s direct influence that leads to Billy raping and killing teenage girls? Is it Crystal’s direct influence that makes Julian prefer to be bound up and spectating sexual acts, rather than engaging in them himself? The clues in the film, and there are many, point to yes. Crystal almost certainly had a sexual relationship with one or both of her sons. Julian was almost certainly forced to watch. The fucked up damage of the Oedipal condition takes on a whole new dimension of perverse darkness in this film. This, probably more than anything else, is what puts people off it.

Julian is a difficult protagonist. He is remote, vacant, and stoic. He rarely speaks, and communicates mostly through violence and aggression. His self-control and latent morality are fascinating when juxtaposed with the triggers that set off the animal underneath. As he examines his hands, those great tools of creation or destruction, we’re given early insight into his sense of himself. He wants to be a hero, a warrior, but that path is completely blocked off for him. On some level, he even wants to be Chang.

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She rewrites the book.

Most of these themes and story bits are communicated silently, through seemingly untethered moments of almost purely visual storytelling. The pace of Only God Forgives is deliberate but some are calling it glacial. I think that one’s less an issue for the film and more an issue of audience patience. Some of this might be owed to the way this film was marketed as a spiritual successor to the sociopathic heroic journey of Drive. If anything Only God Forgives is the anti-Drive. Julian is the scared little boy in all men, especially those driven to be thugs and killers. His only connection to Driver besides Gosling’s performances (deliberately similar) is that both of them see themselves as avengers or heroes, before having to accept that their worlds are better off without them.

For me, the silence gave the performances room to breathe. Maybe people are getting tired of Gosling’s stoic pretty boy thing, though I can’t imagine how this is remotely an actual “thing”. Here, it utterly serves the film and he gets across just as much with the differences in the inclination of his head as he gazes at whatever as a lesser actor would with an impassioned speech. The room to breathe is what makes this possible. Getting to know Julian isn’t about seeing what’s happening in his head by the plasticity of his face. It’s about what he does and doesn’t do.

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The dinner scene deserves its own special mention for being about as uncomfortable a dinner as has ever been in a movie.

This is echoed by Chang, who has maybe three facial expressions: cold stare, colder stare, and cold bemusement. Chang is even more enigmatic and obscure than Julian. He sings karaoke beautifully, has a daughter he seems to love, and will cut a motherfucker’s arm off while his cop buddies look on.

There are several readings of the film that rely on a quasi-mystical or metaphorical sense of these characters and their interactions. The most interesting ones position Chang as a sort of God in and of himself. The ultimate source of justice in his world, at the very least. I’m not sure whether there’s anything to this, but it’s the kind of interesting material the film’s elegant silence makes room for. It’s obvious that there’s no Only God Forgives without Sigmund Freud, but your mileage on the metaphysics may vary.

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Most people seeing this film are seeing it for this scene.

The fight between Chang and Julian is seminal for many reasons, almost none of them what most people probably expect going into the film. By the time it happens, it should be apparent that this is not a straightforward revenge tale. Julian is not much of a hero, and may even be the villain. Yet, he challenges Chang to a fistfight as a way to reconcile his own sense of self, including a sense of honor his mother doesn’t have, with the pursuit of vengeance for his brother. Chang, having a sense of honor and a sense of humor, indulges the boy.

What follows is one of the all-time great fistfights that I’ve seen in a film. Not only because it’s shot well, or the choreography is well executed, but because of the story its telling both within the film and in a greater sense of its context. Only God Forgives is incredibly, sometimes uncomfortably, self-aware. Many are mistaking that self-awareness for self-indulgence, but I think that perspective has to reach to reject what a scene like this is all about.

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Julian gets his manhood test.

Seeing a somewhat anonymous character played by an unknown actor kicking the shit out of Ryan Gosling has got to rank as a surreal, unexpected moment. Julian getting his ass kicked is as total a rejection of his self-worth and moral confusion as could be possible. This is the little boy trying desperately to be taken seriously as a man by the only man he’s ever met. Chang’s beating is about teaching a lesson, not about punishment or revenge. At this point, the matter could have been settled.

But for spite, but for a little boy’s wounded malice. This is where the futility of revenge and the discipline of justice again collide. Julian finally indulges his mother’s thirst for blood and goes to Chang’s house to kill him, as ignominious but natural an end as could be imagined in the way we normally see crime dramas and reprisal killings play out. But Julian is still Julian and justice is more important than revenge.

In some ways, Only God Forgives mythologizes the sacrifice it takes to emancipate oneself from the legacy of one’s origins. Julian examines his hands, with which he murdered his father at his mother’s request. With which he thought of himself as a hero and a warrior. With which he pays Chang for the unjust revenge Crystal pressed on him for the just death of her son.

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Forgiveness is actually pretty far from everybody’s mind.

I think there are numerous things you could take out of Only God Forgives that would likely be equally valid. It’s as much a deconstruction of the revenge film as it is a surreal expression of the impotence of a certain model of masculinity. To me, the latter comes across the most strongly. The fight is especially an expression of that.

The fistfight, the duel, is a profound ritual of masculinity. Most men want to think of themselves as at least able to handle a fight. Rejection of the fight may be considered the reasonable path of peace for a generation of men free of the constricting, destructive model of masculinity that bound our fathers or their fathers, but its power as a symbol of manliness has lost none of its power. Nor has its primacy as an honorable way to settle a conflict. We feel distaste for the gang-beating while relishing the duel. The kind of conflict where even the loser has kept his honor, able to retain his status if not his cause with a black eye and a handshake. This is an ideal that most men cannot hope to live up to, and that truth is why Julian has to get his ass kicked. There’s a sense to which this may be because, like I said, Chang is the only real man he’s ever met. Therefore, Only God Forgives may reinforce an archaic and mythic model of masculinity which may be unattainable anyway. Depends on the extent to which Chang feels more like a person and less like a metaphor.

I think you could argue that Chang is supposed to function as a successful model of masculinity, with his confidence and competence and sense of justice. He’s outside the law, above it somehow, and capable of astonishing feats of violence. Yet he sings karaoke and loves his kid. Maybe that’s enough to make him more the real guy and less the metaphor. I’m not sure.

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The use of color and light sort the mood and evoke the metaphorical, fantastical space the film occupies.

I think that my admiration for Only God Forgives may speak to my comfort with ambiguity. I don’t usually make the mistake of conflating ambiguity with intelligence, as some do, and I don’t believe I’m making it here. Though it may not always be clear which scenes in this film are literal or metaphorical (maybe all are one or the other, rather than a mix!) I think there’s a clear and followable story in here. It’s not a pleasant story, of course, but it’s not much more dark or perverse than the average Korean revenge film, to which Only God Forgives may be in a sort of high level discourse.

Nicolas Winding Refn has made difficult movies more than accessible ones. For every Drive there’s a Valhalla Rising. You’re always in good hands with him, though. His films are always artistically appealing, well made and acted, and aggressively about something. That something is where lies the rub. The something isn’t always all that clear, and requires engagement and thought that the films may not be able to sustain for all people. This is okay, though. Only God Forgives is not a film for all people.

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