AGAINST THE GRAIN: Only God Forgives (2013)

Dylan offers up an alternative take on Gosling and Refn’s last collaboration. 

Only God Forgives left me in a bit of a quandary last year. I am a huge fan of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous film, Drive, and was very much looking forward to his follow-up. I assumed from the trailer that it was in a similar vein – beautiful cinematography and sound wrapped around a gripping revenge plot. This was the wrong attitude to take, and simply the wrong time of year to see it, as I went on a beautiful summer’s day. I sat down to a heavy slice of arthouse cinema, which was decidedly difficult to digest. After some consideration, I realised this was because the excessive violence and dark ambiance crawled under my skin. This emotional impact was enough for me to pick it as the best film of 2013, even if I had my doubts over what Refn’s film meant.

I was concerned this may have been a case of fanboy smoke and mirrors; that I had been tricked by my excitement for the movie, which showcased style over substance. I decided to give it a second watch, and found that I actually liked the movie even more. So, here are my feelings on the divisive Only God Forgives. Though you may not like the oblique storyelling Refn chose to employ, everything he places on the screen is there for a reason.

The plot follows Julian (Ryan Gosling), a gangster/boxing trainer with a strange personality. When his brother is killed, his mother (Kristen Scott Thomas) demands he find those responsible. This gets him embroiled with Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a local police figure with seemingly metaphysical powers.

That is the basic story… now cast it aside.  In its purest form, the plot is about one man taking on God and failing. This is not a revenge thriller – I cannot stress that enough. This is a man taking on the almighty and trying to justify his existence to his mother. If you take this as the narrative, quite literally, you will get so much more out of it than a mere crime story. We are in Lynchian territory here, not Tarantino. However, it is not just a montage of different ideas thrown together. Elements like the way the camera frequently focuses on Julian’s hands are crucial thematically, and it always explores what happens if you take on a higher power. And there are other themes – impalement, children, voyeurism – that repeat throughout.

Regardless of narrative, the cinematography and score were the best of last year. Combined with great production design, Refn builds a neon-soaked vision of Bangkok, the apotheosis of a mystical foreign city. Alongside this, he adds a sense of mysticism to the urban sprawl, finding religious iconography in everything from boxing rings to karaoke. As a garnish, he adds groups watching in silence – humans never quite interacting in a normal way. You always feel separate from  the reality of Refn’s Bangkok. If Drive was reality, this is what the driver dreamt when he was asleep.  Cliff Martinez adds a unique vibe that feels similar to Drive with a rattling electronic score. Although thoroughly modern, it has an epic nature that only adds to Only God Forgives‘ unique storytelling space. But I refuse to accept that this is a film only interesting on stylistic grounds. Thee’s some interesting things going beneath the surface, and the actors are not just chess pieces in visual masturbation.

Gosling got some criticism for the way he sat in silence for the majority of the running time. However, for me, this silence is to emphasise the moments when he explodes. You get a sense that Julian is a very damaged inidividual, one with serious mental issues connected to his gangster mother. This is Gosling’s most violent performance, one that is hard to get into, but certainly well-played. Chang is an equally silent performance, speaking only to administer justice or sing karaoke. Disparate elements, I know, but he also manages to bring so much to his performance. And he works as a godlike figure, too, one that Julian can never really rattle. Chang is literally a deity; he appears and vanishes at will and has intrinsic authority over so many people. Refn is not making realistic characters here but thematic ones.

The fact we have some amazing fighting and gun battles are simply cinematic treats, not the reason behind the film. Refn directs the action well but never lets it overpower the central theme of humans lost in the chaos of the universe. You just have to be playing ball with him as an audience. Take the fight scene between Julian and Chang (below). On my first watch, I assumed this would be an epic martial arts confrontation, one where we may get some semblance of gritty revenge. You could feel the cinema go still with amazement as he fails to land a single punch. On a second viewing, I took it for what it is; a man taking on the impossible task of destroying infinity and death. It’s the same sequence, with the same consequences, and yet so much more enjoyable and affecting when you get what it’s about.

Only God Forgive is not its box art, marketing or production stills. It is an arthouse drama dressed as noir. Accept that and let the magic of the cinematography, music, direction and surprisingly linear concept wash over you. Those willing to engage with the heavy ideas Refn exhibits will find something far beyond just a revenge fantasy, but one of the most intriguing cinematic projects of recent times.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Nicolas Winding Refn got the idea for the film while his wife was pregnant with their second daughter. He felt very existentialistic and felt he had much anger and violence in him, but did not know how to let it out. Suddenly he had the idea that the definite person to hold all the answers to existential questions and life’s problems where God and imagined himself having a physical fight with God.
  • Julian only speaks seventeen lines throughout the film.
  • Chang’s outfit in the movie is what retired cops in Thailand wear.
  • According to a Refn Q&A at Bam, the infamous insult “Cum Dumpster” was added in to the movie after Refn (late one night) asked Ryan Gosling to come up with a list of the most vile words you could say to a woman. That was the top of his list.

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama

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