The Greatest Movie Moments Of 2013
Only God Forgives – Julian’s Fantasy of His Better Self
Only God Forgives was and is an incredibly divisive film. Whatever else may be said about it, Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling did not simply rehash their successful first collaboration, Drive. Instead of a modern fairy tale centered around Gosling’s effortlessly cool Driver, the two made a brutally violent examination of the nature of revenge featuring Gosling as a borderline mute, explicitly impotent, ineffectual bully with some serious mother issues.
Only God Forgives is absolutely not a film for everyone, and those who it does not click with will find very little of value in it. But for those who it is for, the picture is a visually stunning journey into the selfish oblivion of crime and power, as well as the painful, costly road to redemption. It is exactly the film that Refn and Gosling wanted to make, and their singularity of vision is worthy of praise, particularly with how easy it would have been for the duo to simply rehash Drive.
“Singular” is a pretty good word for Only God Forgives. What other film would cast a current male sex symbol as a deeply troubled, impotent wreck of a man? What other film would cast Kristin Scott Thomas as a foul-mouthed, hateful, psychopathic crime lord? What other film would embody God in the form of a middle-aged Thai police officer who loves his family, can conjure a sword from thin air and sings karaoke love ballads after delivering brutal judgement on those who do evil? What other film would combine a sexual fantasy and an unprovoked act of violence to genuinely moving results?
Gosling’s Julian is neither healthy nor happy. He lives in exile in Thailand, unable to return of America after (possibly) murdering his father. He and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) manage crime on behalf of their mother Crystal (Thomas). Julian and Billy could not be more different. Julian is quiet. Billy is loud. Crime is business for Julian, and not something he particularly enjoys. Billy relishes the criminal life, to the point of declaring himself “the devil.” Julian pursues a semi-romantic relationship with a prostitute named Mai (Ratha Phongam). Billy makes use of numerous underage prostitutes to slake his assorted lusts. An act of senseless brutality on Billy’s part draws the attention of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a mysterious cop with supernatural powers who is reverentially referred to as “The Angel of Vengeance.” Chang sees Billy dead for his crime, which brings a revenge-crazed Crystal to Bankgok. Julian immediately falls under his mother’s thumb, and both accepts her abuse and abuses others in an effort to please her and prove himself a man in her eyes. In so doing he wrecks his relationship with Mai and comes into conflict with Chang, a combination of events that set him down a bloody, costly path towards redemption for his crimes. Only God Forgives‘ most moving scene sets up both Julian’s desire to be a better man and the personal devils that make becoming one such a fraught process for him.
Julian’s relationship with Mai is defined by his assorted impotencies. He wants to be more than a client to her, and she wants to be more than a preferred prostitute to him. But Julian lacks both the courage and the will to step up and make the changes he needs for their relationship to evolve, to the point that he cannot actually have sex with Mai. Instead, he watches her masturbate while he is tied to a chair, his impotence and inability to make healthy changes in a relationship manifested literally.
In Only God Forgives‘ most moving scene, the audience is allowed a glimpse of the man Julian wishes he could be, a glimpse that his then swiftly contrasted with the ruin of a man he actually is. Julian sits on a couch in the club where Mai works, watching her as she sits behind a curtain of red beads. He wears a black t-shirt, symbolic of the anger and brutality that define him, and makes no move to talk to or so much as approach Mai. He receives two visions. In the first version, a white-shirted version of himself reaches through the beaded curtain with a closed fist. Mai takes the other Julian’s fist in her hands, he opens his hand and she guides it into her. This is the man Julian wishes he could be; a man who can let go of anger and fear and actually connect (physically and emotionally) with the woman he cares for. The second vision, which occurs concurrently with the first, is of Crystal. She sits in a club, lustfully observing three muscular men clad only in jock straps. Julian’s anger and inability to form healthy relationships were, in part, taught to him by his mother. Crystal views everyone as beneath her, and more often than not sees them as objects that exists solely for her amusement and gratification. Her terrible parenting in the past and current oppressive presence in the present are major factors in Julian’s inability to build a healthy life.
Refn furthers his point by breaking Julian’s fantasy with the laughter of an outsider. While Julian broods, two men have joined him in the room, both laughing cheerfully. Julian cannot abide this, and viciously attacks one of the men after being offered a drink. However much Julian may long to be a better man, he cannot get past his anger and his issues with his mother, and so lashes out at the world around him. The violence he inflicts is both horrifying and sad. Julian is a vicious wreck of a man. He longs to be better than he is, but does not know how to be, and in his frustration hurts himself and the people around him. Refn conveys this with Cliff Martinez’s beautiful, eerie score, a stunning use of color that invokes the look and feel of a black and white film noir through dark reds and blues, a change of t-shirts and some clever edits. It is a stunning bit of cinema, a sculpture created from the collaboration and manipulation of image, sound and time. It is, like the rest of Only God Forgives, singular.