Only God Forgives is a fascinating film. That being said, it is definitely not for everybody. It takes some time to warm to director Nicolas Winding Refn’s style but once you have adjusted to the disorientating cinematography, it is incredibly intense and moving. Central to the plot are the emotional and psychological issues that Julian (Ryan Gosling), a drug-dealer in Bangkok, has been attempting to deal with since murdering his allegedly abusive father a decade ago for his mother. These difficulties are amplified when his mother comes to town, demanding retribution for the murder of her first-born son and manipulating Julian into seeking revenge. Julian is not an evil man; he was originally willing to let the murderer go when he found out his brother was killed for raping and murdering an underage prostitute. But Julian is a weak man who is capable of incredible violence, making him vulnerable to his mother’s strong personality.
The film is intensely focused upon Julian; it is as though he has momentarily shared all of himself with us. It is through his emotions and point of view that we are presented with the other characters and situations. When his mind wanders away from reality to a fantasy or memory, this digression is what is shown on screen. We see Julian’s perception of reality, not reality itself. Refn has cloaked Only God Forgives in the colour red and shadows; representing the violence in Julian’s past and present and the shame he feels in response to this. A sense of sexual shame is also evident; a possible result of the dysfunctional relationship he has with his mother, Crystal. For the most part, a sexual tension between the pair is merely hinted at through comments, glances and the way they touch. Their final scene together, however, brings this tension to the fore in a shocking and disturbing way.
In tune with the connection to Julian, there is a real sense of emptiness in this film; Refn has chosen to minimize verbal communication and effectively let the silence do the talking. Dialogue is either; non-existent or short-lived and/or muted by the soundtrack, which is loud, dramatic and unsettling throughout. Furthermore, there is a bizarre amount of stillness in many scenes. Characters often hold the same position for a couple seconds, not saying or doing anything, just staring mechanically – almost as if the camera had begun rolling prematurely, or had lingered a little too long. Similarly, the extras in bars and clubs are still: robotic and obedient. All this is eerie and highlights the fact that we are watching a very expressive film; such stillness also makes a strong contrast with the small amount of human passion on show.
There are only two elements of the film that exude any sort of life or passion: the violence and Crystal, the wonderfully messed-up puppeteer of the show. It seems that the most prevalent critical response to Only God Forgives is the agreement that Crystal, played brilliantly by Kristin Scott Thomas, makes the film what it is. She is exciting and entertaining, even if also horrible and manipulative. In light of the fact that we are seeing Julian’s emotional perspective, it makes sense that his unstable, controlling mother who is the root of all his troubles is the one vibrantly portrayed person. He both loves her and hates her. Everyone else in the world pales in comparison to the way she affects him.
I would absolutely understand if people do not enjoy this film. It explores complicated and violent themes and involves a lot of visual symbolism, devoid of almost any dialogue. I myself didn’t start to enjoy Only God Forgives until perhaps a quarter of the way through; its style was unexpected and the disjointed narrative initially confusing. But as I began to see a logic in the film’s style and as the narrative, characterisation and emotion slowly unfolded, I was truly mesmerised.