People will talk about the colors in this film and so will I: the fact that the universe of Only God Forgives is splashed with so much intense coloring (it’s like the whole world is crammed inside a stoplight) has to indicate more than the partial colorblindness of its director (Nicolas Winding Refn colors his movies with enough intensity for him to see what they look like). But I’m more concerned about the other kind of “coloring,” the fact that an incredibly simple revenge story is hued with so much sexuality that it becomes a nightmare realm fashioned off the psychology of boys. It might be exactly what you’d expect, if you could skip to the end before you watch it and see two parts of the dedication: “To Alejandro Jodorowsky” and “To my mother.” Freud would have a field-day with this movie.
Jodorowsky baptized Refn as his spiritual god-son (for real) and in comparison to the kinds of movies most people watch, Only God Forgives was reviewed as though it was one of Jodorowsky’s slurries of pop-art, color, and crucifixes like El Topo and The Holy Mountain (Jodorowsky films like he makes every day’s shooting script by stringing together his morning Tarot cards). But for those who know Jodorowsky, they know better than to think that Refn is his equivalent. Refn doesn’t make Jodorowsky movies: he makes completely normal plots about mob families or fashion models and merely baptizes them in The Holy Mountain. Jodorowsky makes movies like someone trying to pull a person’s skin over the frame of a forklift; it’s no wonder that people won’t accept his creations as human. Refn, some may be relieved to realize, has a normal skeleton beneath his images. The core of the movie is simple.
It’s so simple, in fact, that Only God Forgives frequently refrains from telling us about it. It mutes dialogue if it’s only in service to a plot that we’ve seen before in other movies, which is basically a sentence’s worth: a police chief tries to take down a mob while a mob family tries to get revenge for the death of one of their own. It tries to use dialogue as exposition as infrequently as possible. This movie is all about mood.
That makes Ryan Gosling’s casting really important. Whether Only God Forgives worked or not depended almost entirely on whether we would interpret Gosling’s natural lack of recognizable emotions as a depth of feeling or a lack of any. Not only does it work, but he’s the only one who could have pulled it off: he has as little emotion as a bad actor, and he has the crucial aspect of his demeanor that makes it seem like a defense mechanism. When he stares blankly at a prostitute masturbating herself for him, we can see how the need for pleasure gives him no feeling that won’t eventually become self-loathing, which is the only form of masturbation he knows. When he screams at her to take off her dress after a meeting with his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), his breathless, cracking scream smashes our imagination. All the screams in this movie, in fact (a man tortured with hatpins comes to mind) are not “movie screams,” a distinction that wasn’t entirely clear in my mind until this film. The difference is that there’s no manliness in them. They are desperate and messy and full of shame. They’re actually quite scary, not because of what they sound like, but because of what they “should” sound like.
The movie does shocking things with sexuality and our expectations of it. Billy (Tom Burke), the brother who gets killed at the beginning, goes to a brothel and says, “I want a fourteen-year-old girl.” We might be shocked by that, but in a predictable way: there’s no grey area to how evil that is, and we’re at the point now where even a mainstream action movie (Taken, for instance) might include a theme of sex trafficking. Then something changes. Over dinner with his mother, Julian (Gosling) endures a rant about her expectations for her children, her ghetto debutante lips pursing with delight around a description of the size of dead Billy’s penis. All of a sudden, we can guess why Billy wanted a young girl: it wasn’t about sex, but about control. He wanted to dominate something, as he has been dominated (I’m not saying the mother had sex with her son, only that she might as well have). Julian, craving this kind of attention, gets off on the opposite: he’s taken his role in life as an unwanted observer and fetishized it.
Only God Forgives takes something as good as a mother’s love for her son and poisons it with brutality; there’s something peculiarly ancient about the way Refn thinks of us. The result is Shakespearean, family evils breeding greater evil. When a policeman prefaces torture with the statement, “Girls, close your eyes; men, take a good look,” we can see how behind the times he is, to assume that brutality is a result of gender and not of our terrible instinct to self-destruct through our desires. The mother, after all, is the worst sexual predator in a movie full of them. Thomas plays her like a John Waters idea of motherhood without the irony: all mink shawls and heels and the dream of screwing her children. She asks if anyone minds if she smokes, not because she’s deferring to them but dominating them: she knows that asking and doing it anyway is true power. You understand Julian’s clenched fists and nebulous eyes once you meet her, like you’d understand why Peter Pan went to Neverland if you found out his real mom was Cruella de Vil. You’d understand why he left home and started a gang of boys.
Images of hands are crucial to how Refn gets this across to us. Hands are a form of sexuality in Only God Forgives: notice Julian’s idea of BDSM, which is to have his arms tied down while his lover touches herself with her own hands. His hands do terrible things, and we wonder if his inability to accept power over his own pleasure is a form of guilt or resilience. What’s the difference? Here’s a character that doesn’t control his feelings: he is totally driven by them, without ever giving them names. He resists control, and that resistance enslaves him to his urges. The result of his silent self-oppression is that he can’t take responsibility for these urges either: this is how he ends up at the center of a revenge story and the only one in it with no desire for vengeance.
Someone out there probably wonders why he confronts people even when he’s no match for them, or why his mother gets away with sneering at his women and his manly virtue: he wanders, and that’s how he decodes the world of Only God Forgives for us, as a form of survival rather than feeling. It’s high art, but equates that art to instinct through sex and silence, one which allows us to see what passes for pleasure in a world where no one can accept their own feelings, and the other which allows us to see just how little control over those feelings they have. Julian dreams of his hands being severed, and those dreams become a universal castration nightmare, a form of what Joseph Campbell wrote about once when he found a form of it in cultures all over the world. For us to know its meaning here, the dream needs the context of Julian’s whole psyche, which fears most not what he’s done in his life, but the possibility that he’s been in control of it the whole time.
This leads to a scene of him dragging someone by the upper jaw down a neon hallway. It leads to him fist-fighting Chang, the investigator that wants to kill his mother. Vithaya Pansringarm plays him like a samurai out of touch with reality; he brutalizes people until they fit into his good vs evil idea of the world, yet another defense mechanism in a place called Bangkok but which is as foreign and seedy as New LA was in Blade Runner. He wields a samurai’s short-sword and deals in frontier justice, the kind where you could lose an eye for looking at him wrong or masturbating on Sundays. Chang assaults this film. He takes Julian apart in their fight scene; he’s much more convicted to kill those who do wrong than Julian is to vindicate them.
Chang is the one taking the most revenge in this revenge film, despite being the one person who isn’t involved in anything until he intends to be. He’s avenging his world for getting worse. He becomes powerful and Lynchian through casting: the droopy-faced Pansringarm, a real-life Kendo expert and not an actor, fits into this movie like a version of Judge Dredd that was a pediatrician before the apocalypse. His unfitness is chilling, particularly against Gosling, who could be anyone, wandering what they hope is someone else’s life.
The film is framed around Chang singing haunting karaoke at a bar full of cops, recalling the slinky framework of the songs in Blue Velvet and Woo’s The Killer. Pansringarm sings it like it’s a holy verse, or a meditation; he has the narrow view of the old gunslingers, who viewed the entire world as a simple question of guilt vs vengeance (they didn’t have enough empathy to consider resilience as an alternative). I wonder if the other cops, who act normally, are just playing along with Chang because his methods work so well (he's known as "The Angel of Vengeance"). He may not even be on the police payroll, for all we know, any more than he is technically an actor in Only God Forgives. They may let him play the Man with No Name with their criminals because they don’t want to deal with it. They sit through his karaoke out of deference, or fear. They’re not mutually exclusive.
I’ve heard people call Refn a “deluded” filmmaker for thinking of his images as being meaningful. Perhaps he is deluded to believe it. But any movie that hopes to mean more than getting from A to B requires some of that delusion. We may need to go along with it, if we want to find something more meaningful than a guy who beats up bad guys because they deserved it. That’s a world where people act badly because they wanted to, or were destined to: here’s one where they may do so just for lack of alternatives. The bad reviews (Only God Forgives at time of writing has a 41% critic rating and 37% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes) are the contemporary versions of Roger Ebert giving Blue Velvet one star out of four. I’ll put myself ahead of the curve and wait for everyone else to realize (shouldn’t be more than ten years or so) that Refn is making masterpieces. And in the meantime, I’ll tolerate all this bad press even if I don’t forgive it. Someone else can handle that.
Image is a screenshot from the film: © TWC