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Why I Keep Coming Back to "Only God Forgives"

Warning: This piece contains SPOILERS! As well as imagery of graphic and overall heavy topics. Viewer discretion is advised.

Nicholas Winding Refn, writer and director of 2013’s "Only God Forgives", is one of the most influential filmmakers within my aspirations. Arguably, the most mainstream of the Copenhagen, Sweden-born artist’s projects, is 2011’s DRIVE, starring Ryan Gosling. That particular piece was what captured my attention of Mr. Refn, and the rest is awe-inspired history.

Based upon the 2005-released book by the same name, DRIVE was adapted to the silver screen by the directorial skillset of Mr. Refn, written by Hossein Amini, and starring of course, Ryan Gosling. Refn’s retro-futuristic outlook, Gosling’s interpretation of the stoic, bomber-jacket-wearing stuntman-getaway driver, and the majestically musical forces that came to add their tonal flairs… The cinematic stars aligned as creatives of all caliber came together and released a noir classic resembling not only a heartwarming and heartbreaking love story, but also a tense, violent crime odyssey, and if one were so inclined, even a (psychological) character study.

Now, after the release of the 2011 crime noir, Refn and Gosling found their creative aspirations teaming up once more, and thus the two figureheads helped release their next cinematic collaboration – "Only God Forgives".

Unfortunately, as it is said about lightning, it rarely ever strikes twice, and for "Only God Forgives", it did not and (as of right now) still has not met nearly the same amount of praise as the duo’s preceding film. While it currently stands at a careful 3.0 out of 5 on Letterboxd, it is also found at a 5.7 out of 10 on IMDb, and a 41% on Rotten Tomatoes. Now, I am not one to look to reviews as the end-all-be-all when it comes to whether or not, I should venture out and catch a particular film’s screening. But, when it does come to "Only God Forgives", I have been especially curious about what audiences thought about this. What did they love and hate? I specifically mention such ‘strong’ words as “love” and “hate”, because such two emotions of seem to be ever present in reviewing a piece such as this. Those who have seen the film either hold it in a masterful regard and see it as a misunderstood, layered narrative, or completely despise what it presented and see it as a pretentious, empty, and confusing piece that thinks of itself as something deeper.


But what is it that happens within the short runtime of the hour and thirty minutes of "Only God Forgives"’ events, that warrant such a strong culmination of emotions ranging from either admiration or repugnance?

Well, the storyline of the crime thriller truly begins with the graphic murder of a very young aged worker (one that happens off-screen), as well as the man whose hands it was dealt by – Billy, played by Tom Burke. Billy is a drug-dealing gangster serving as the second-in-command to a drug trafficking organization hidden behind a Muay Thai boxing ring front – a front overseen by the ocean-blue-eyed, starry gaze of a man who is given an extremely few set of words, named Julian. Julian is the main character of ''Only God Forgives'' and is played by Ryan Gosling. Billy and Julian are brothers and partners in literal crime, as they operate within the shifty, narrow allies and busy streets of Bangkok, Thailand.

Shortly after the murder of the underaged sex-worker, the swiftness of poetic justice finds its sights on Billy, who soon finds himself embracing the hand of death. This, once again, happens offscreen, but this time by the girl’s father, an act greenlit by a mysterious police officer named Lt. Chang, played by Vithaya Pansringarm. Chang, does not carry much dialogue, but instead, a soul-piercing stare, similar to Julian and most other characters in this film. In addition to an unnerving look of death-induced judgment, the lieutenant carries with him, a sword of which is never shown on his back, yet is mysteriously managed to be unsheathed and used, whenever he sees necessary. This justified murder of Julian’s scumbag brother becomes the catalyst of Julian’s own personal journey, both as a gangster and as a man. He must face seemingly inhumane yet human forces of nature that strike fear in his morality and manhood. While one of these forces of nature, is of course Chang, and the other is his mother Crystal, played expertly and terrifyingly by Kristen Scott Thomas. Crystal is the epitome of an ice queen, who possesses a heart colder than sub-zero temperature, as well as a machete-sharpened tongue of the most visercial dialgoue in the film. In addition, she has a set of eyes that ierces the furthest into the audience’s souls, moreso than any other character in the film.

When Crystal flies into Bangkok to lay Billy to rest, she also demands from Julian, the status of the man who murdered Billy. To Crystal’s utter disgust, the killer was let go by Julian, after he heard what led to Billy being killed, and believed that the deceased brother got what he deserved. This sentiment further corrupts an already strange and twisted relationship between the mother and son. Crystal takes the reigns of the organization, becoming the kind of leader and possessing the kind of spine she believes Julian could never have. All the while, she intensely demsaculates Julian, working to expose him, as seemingly just a jealous, little boy trapped in a grown man’s body – someone who could never quite win over Mother’s approval. As the events of Crystal’s efforts to draw blood, also draw the terminator-like aura from Chang and his mysterious sword, Chang draws closer and closer to piercing the mortal shells of a vengeful Crystal as well as a desperate Julian, who strugglingly attempts to protect his mother from certain death.

My Opinions

Now, the film is certainly not an easy watch, from a narrative perspective. When I first saw "Only God Forgives", admittedly I was not very sure how to feel. Of course, there were aspects of the film that I was in MAD love with. I certainly did not hate it, yet I wasn’t sure that I loved it either. Now, as someone who has rewatched "Only God Forgives" a couple of times, over the span of a couple of years, and has had time to think about it, read and understand the perspectives of reviewers, as well as currently writing about it… I do understand more about how I feel toward it. Now, the storyline I am continuing to understand better and better. But, it is both my feelings and my wondering why I keep coming back to an otherwise unconventionally-told film, that have prompted me to write this article.

I want to articulate not my understanding of what is considered to be a story that many complain to rely too heavily on symbolism and hidden messaging… Instead, what it is about "Only God Forgives" that indulges my return, as well as simply solidifies the fascinating feelings that I have about this film. Now, involving my continuous return to a film that upon many viewings has left me feeling within the middle, what continues to draw me back, believe it or not, is this confusion I have. The difficulty of understanding what Mr. Refn was unraveling with each moment of screen, is what I believe, attracts me. Of course, the film being a Masterclass on what Eye Candy should look like, is for sure a reason that I come back – witnessing this awe-inspiring presentation of lighting, atmosphere, facial acting, visceral yet minimalistic dialogue, etc. But, on a deeper level, my attraction toward this film lies in me wanting to make out a reason for why each moment exists, in the order of events that it does.

Now, of course, there are plenty of films and filmmakers whose forte it is to conjure up confusion, while at the same time, layering said confusion with hidden fragments of answers that are meant to be discovered upon each viewing. You may understand everything at the end of the first viewing, but watch said flick multiple times, and you’ll get more and more than what you thought you bargained for. But, something like Nicholas Winding Refn’s film-in-question, I believe that this film does not want to feed you pieces of anything. The details are not meant to be found. Yes, I believe that they are meant to be conjured by you, the audience, and never known for certain. Such details lie within the audience’s ability to write.

For those that have seen "Only God Forgives", or even if you have not watched it, but are reading this article, you may already see this film as one that uses style over substance, utilizing symbolism as an excuse for a lack of major story details. There is a story there, but one that purposefully explains next to nothing about itself – or if it does explain itself, it does so very heavily hidden under something like lighting, or a character’s glare, or moving their right arm in particular. Anyways, feeling that this film is a lackluster product, is a fair assessment because, like all art, it is subjective and bound only by the audience’s interpretation. I like to lean more toward narratives that have substance over style, although I am in even deeper love for those who can equally balance both. Sure, I like my films to say more to me than what "Only God Forgives" does. However, I am also in abundant joy for endless theories and interpretations. I believe that a perfectly done movie should of course, not tell you everything, and instead leave the audience to delve somewhat into their imagination and fill in the purposefully and expertly-crafted gaps of what they believe happened to this or that character. This is a mantra that "Only God Forgives", and many more of Refn’s works, call home to. HOWEVER, despite me just now saying that, Refn also loves to disregard this mantra and leave way more for interpretation, then people typically would like. Regardless of this approach to directing more and writing less, he most certainly desires for the audience’s imagination to flourish.

"Only God Forgives" may run with more style over substance, but that does not mean I am going to write this silverscreen piece off as a bad flick and demand it be avoided. While I prefer a balance of visual beauty and cohesive story, "Only God Forgives" somehow defies my preferences and manages to be ‘that exception’. It came into my life and my attention begs for the film to be had the same attention that I give to other films that are not style over substance. Thus, here I am. Never have I paid more attention to a film that MAY offer so little, yet potentially SO much at the same time.

Sure, at worst, this film is eye candy that every aspiring filmmaker should watch and take notes from. But at best, it is that misunderstood masterpiece that is known to be a “purposefully omitted-enough, arthouse experiment” that is a moving painting – a painting that yearns for the audience to take its emotional presentation, it's reasoning for moving in such a way, and therefore mold it and have it become whatever their cinematic brains copes it into. A film that stands less as a film, and more of a painting-in-motion.

Closing Thoughts

I remember seeing a review on Letterboxd claiming that this film was a painting, and as you can see, that particular comment stuck with me. Nicholas Winding Refn is an anomaly of a filmmaker who sees the art form in such a uniquely Refn way, producing projects that thumb their noses at conventional film uses. The filmmaker’s narrative babies scoff at Hollywood tradition and aim to be a product that is instantly recognized as a byproduct of this Copenhagen artist. While he certainly has an aesthetic, Refn more importantly, has an unusual and strange way of unraveling the events that appear before our eyes. They may not appear the way they seem at first glance. "Only God Forgives", like many of Refn’s works, I believe, are truly indeed moving paintings that leave you filling in the kind of gaps that would normally be reserved for exposition or other specific uses of storytelling. Is this good? Is this bad? Is it lazy? Is it genius? Hey, doesn’t matter, right? It’s all subjective.

"Only God Forgives" is one that I may not fully understand, just yet. Will I ever? I’m not sure. Though, would I ever want to fully understand, at this point? Maybe? Maybe not? As I said, part of the allure of this film is my confusion. Maybe it is best for the film to never really be understood. Either way, it is an anomaly of a filmmaker who himself, is an artistic, genius of an anomaly. Slowly but surely, the more I watch "Only God Forgives", the more I read about it, and write about it, I certainly find myself being pulled more and more into the aura of an otherwise divisively reviewed film. I certainly have an immense amount of respect for what "Only God Forgives" did. The film is a masterclass in how to present a neon-ladden, sickenly gorgeous directing style that manages to mix not only the most beautiful colors and set pieces, but also the most guttural, grimy, and fearsome atmosphere – such atmospheres that also naturally house a collection of intimidating and darkly toned, stoic personalities packed with few-worded moments. In addition, the equally astounding soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, gives the presentation a kiss of appreciation, showing to the audience that Cliff knows what Mr. Refn desires from within his cinematic, painter/photographer-esque heart. For these qualities and simply for the risky venture of developing an experimentative narrative, I will always commend and truly respect this film for what it is doing. Or maybe should I say, for it purposefully lacks in doing?

Like a painting, we see what we want to see. The only storytelling presented to us in a painting, is the emotions on the face, and that is where Refn’s capability of unraveling a story, excels – not just with lights and music, but the face. Refn may be a filmmaker, but I see him as someone who possesses the soul of a painter, or a photographer even – and it just so happens that in this timeline he picked up a film camera. And thank God that happened…

"Only God Forgives", as well as many more of Nicholas Winding Refn’s amazing works continues to not only thoroughly entertain, but also remind us that art is not a definitive answer, but a subjective approach coming from within the ever-evolving beauty that lies within the mysteriousness that is the human soul.


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