BOP Reviews... Only God Forgives - Box Office Pulp Podcast | Movie Reviews | Film Analysis

Thursday, August 8, 2013

BOP Reviews... Only God Forgives

"Julian, a drug-smuggler thriving in Bangkok's criminal underworld, sees his life get even more complicated when his mother compels him to find and kill whoever is responsible for his brother's recent death."
A rather simplistic synopsis for a film that's anything but. One that's not even entirely accurate. To start off, I'd like to say that I'm honestly not even entirely sure whether or not I like ONLY GOD FORGIVES. I really don't. I think the ideas and story presented in the film are greater than the film itself, unfortunately. But, I appreciate the hell out of it. And you should too.

I'll attempt not to get too spoilerly. But as has been stated in interviews by Refn, the genesis of the film came from the idea of a man wanting to a fight God. A simple notion. Ryan Gosling's character Julian does just this in the film, but it's not a climax, it's a man filled with anger and regret lashing out, losing the fight, and that's it. The fight against God is futile. Only leaving Julian a broken mess that must come crawling to do his mother's bidding again.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The setup is simple enough; Julian and his brother Billy run a boxing club in Bangkok, which is secretly a front for an illegal drug trade. This whole idea is set up wonderfully in a fantastic and just about dialogue-less opening. Only a few words are spoken by Billy before he heads off for the the night. But before he does, he looks Julian in the eye and says simply, "time to meet the devil." Julian's expression says nothing but everything. He has total contempt and knows his brother is a monster.

Billy goes out, looking for drink and prostitution, inquiring about finding a 14 year old to have sex with. Eventually he comes across a 16 year old, who is being pimped out by her father -- along with her sisters -- for any ends meat to survive. We find out soon that after raping the girl, Billy has beaten her to death. But Billy doesn't run, he waits in the apartment where it happened as a man arrives, named Chang. The police have sent him, and though we don't learn much about him, he is a cop. Chang allows the father of the murdered girl to return the favor to Billy by beating him to death also. Billy appears to have no interest in fighting back.

But soon afterward, the father finds himself out in a field, Chang standing over him. His crime was not the murder of Billy in revenge... his crime, to Chang, was allowing it to happen by selling his daughters for money. As punishment, Chang reveals a sword out of nowhere, and proceeds to chop off the father's right hand.

Hand imagery is strong in this film. Julian is constantly seen staring at his hands, and as we come to find out, he had done something terrible with his bare hands that has eaten him up inside. Something he desperately wants forgiveness from. 

Soon after, Crystal, Julian and Billy's mother, arrives. A peroxide blonde mafioso femme fatale, who Kristin Scott Thomas plays up to nearly comedic levels without ever feeling comedic. At times it does seem she belongs elsewhere, but considering she's in a foreign land, perhaps that's the point. After she cradles Julian's ass for an incredibly uncomfortable amount of time they have a brief exchange from the position a woman would give a man fellatio from. It's nearly shot as such. And the conversation does happen in a room Julian was previously seen with a prostitute he may very well be in love with -- where, once again, his hands were tied up. Soon, Crystal finds out Julian allowed the father of the girl to live(she also could care less about Billy raping and murdering the girl). She tells him she'll handle it instead and asks for a kiss.

The incest themes are thick throughout the movie. But even so, the one thing many don't seem to pick up on is the effect of sexual abuse on our main character. Julian appears to long for a normal sexual relationship, but can't because of his mother. Whether or not they had at one time been lovers is never stated outright, but it's mostly implied her and Billy were. There are two trains of thought here: one where Crystal abused them both, or one where she only slept with Billy and this caused Julian to have feelings of resentment and jealousy, which he knew was terrible and only deteriorated his mental state. Both could lead to Julian to be the way he is, and his anger, so it's hard to pin down.

Playing up the sexual problems of Julian is my favorite sequence in the film, besides the fighting God scene. Julian is watching the prostitute he appears to have feelings for, a woman named Mai. Julian imagines himself walking up to her and giving her his clenched fist. In his vision she opens his palm... a symbol of submission. She brings down his hands between her legs for a sexual act. Julian closes his eyes in his vision and then suddenly sees his mother, staring out seductively, like she's watching, aroused, smoking. His eyes open. He sees her again.

The vision comes to an end. Julian looks over and somewhat near him are two men enjoying themselves over some drinks. Julian assaults them violently, dragging one out by the jaw into the hallway towards an open door -- we do not see what happens. This scene speaks volumes about Julian's psychology, while only scratching the surface. 

Another puzzling aspect of the film -- or THE most puzzling aspect, is the character of Chang. Is he a man who believes himself to be God, or is he God? These particular questions aren't raised in the film, and really could be taken either way. He is treated almost supernaturally, but then has a home life. He sings karaoke after taking the hands off those who are deserving of wrath, which is a nearly religious activity to Thai culture. To be honest, we don't even learn his name is CHANG IN THE FILM. Only by the credits do we know this. Before fighting Julian, one of the officers that Chang is always with asks Julian, "do you know who he is?" 

Julian knows, but we can't be certain. But either as a stand in for God, or God himself, Chang works the same way. But I've had a separate theory, but one that I don't believe fits in with Refn's views.

Chang is seen to have a daughter -- at least we assume it's his daughter, who we only see a very brief exchange with before cutting away. Not much attention is paid to her throughout the film, save for a pivotal moment I won't get into. But the exchange Chang has with her is fascinating to me, and most reviews don't bring it up. It's almost as if Chang is asking her how to deal with people, these bad people. Her reply indicates a peaceful message, something far different than the violent wrath that Chang is unleashing. I've had a theory that Chang's daughter is in fact God, and Chang is an angel of vengeance. Which would fit in with the title and idea that Only God Forgives. Or perhaps does Chang represent the God of the Old Testament while his daughter is the God of the New Testament? Or perhaps none of them supposed to be God, because none of them forgive. Or by cutting off of the hands, is that the way to forgive you of your crimes?

The film, and Chang, can be interpreted by all these ways. And that's why I can't dislike it in any way. It's too fascinating.

As for why I can't fully bring myself to like it. Well, it's easier to follow if you read interviews with Refn. And to me, that's a failure on the film if you need the director to try to explain things to you. Another is I think Refn couldn't decide on how to play things, like Chang. What's supposed to be metaphorical, or allegorical, or literal? What's supernatural and what's real? It makes it difficult to pin down what you're watching sometimes and doesn't make the film a terribly enjoyable experience. I don't mean that in a "please spoon feed me" kind a way, but when the film itself is having a hard time deciding, what are you left to do? 

A lot of people have complained about the acting, but it was great, in my opinion. Julian barely talks, but Gosling says everything by just looking. He takes what he did with Driver in DRIVE and takes it to eleven. To most he's just staring forward, but he's letting the story and the mood take what you want from the tiniest of facial ticks. It's actually genius, I thought. 

But the movie itself, seems to at times get lost in how beautiful it is(and it is beautiful), when it needs to come back around for a bit more focus. The ending is also fairly abrupt, and far too dissociative with the audience I feel. You don't know if you're in a vision, seeing something that's happening, or seeing something that's happening through a vision. As I said, if the film had nailed certain tones down more concretely with how you're supposed to take what you're seeing, you would be able to put the pieces together and figure it out from there. But instead you're left knowing something happened, but you may not have seen it as you were expecting it to. And then more karaoke. 

I won't get too much into the negative stuff, because quite frankly, if someone said it was the best movie ever, I couldn't argue with them, and if someone said it was the worst movie ever, I couldn't argue with them. Unless I found out they liked Transformers 2. Then they're an idiot.

In closing, see Only God Forgives. It's a film worth picking apart any way you want. It's filled with meanings, symbolism, and a fascination of right and wrong. I mean, God did allow Billy to be murdered and is going around chopping off people's hands too. This is a film very much in the opposite of DRIVE. There was hope for humanity there, no matter how horrible things got, Driver still prevailed against his dark nature to be a hero of sorts. ONLY GOD FORGIVES is the utter hopelessness and evil that's in the soul of humanity.

At the end of the day you're not sure what the film is making you feel. Maybe that's the point. Much like Julian trying to punch God for everything that's wrong in his life, maybe it's futile too. 

- Mike Napier