So this is the newest film from Nicolas Winding Refn, director of Drive and Bronson. What we know about him is that his films are pretentious in a good way, in that they openly ask you to make an effort to understand what they're about and hold up their part of the bargain by being about something interesting. We also see from his previous films that a lot of his content is made up of the visuals and style, things which don't lend themselves to easy, clear interpretation and are easy to dismiss. So this film followed swiftly after Drive, was notoriously booed at Cannes, and has received almost unanimously negative reviews. The reviews were so bad and so unanimous that me and regular movie buddy Howard almost stayed away, but then we decided dammit, we want to see this. And we did, and both liked it quite a bit. Sometimes it's hard to see what other critics' problem is, or why they choose to get into such a snit over something.
We open with Thai titles, the English title presented as a subtitle, as though translated. So there's this sheen of this not only happening in a foreign culture, but being an actual product of that culture. The titles come over a pan along a long blade, this kind of sword one of the characters will get a lot of use out of. We are in Bangkok, and set the scene at a boxing ring, where Ryan Gosling as Julian is brooding. Right up front it's easy to notice that the colors are rich and supersaturated, the blacks are deep, and pretty much every shot is gorgeous and art directed to the nth degree. Julian's brother Billy, who seems to be on some kind of drug, visits a brothel and tells the owner he wants to have a fourteen-year-old girl. When the owner says he doesn't have that, Billy asks if he has a daughter, and says bring her. When he refuses, Billy leaves and picks up a prostitute on the street. She is apparently sixteen, and Billy kills her.
The police have the inert Billy, still in the room and not resisting, and bring the father of the girl. Chang, the police chief, locks him in the room with the killer and tell him to do whatever he wants. He kills Billy. Then Chang takes him out to some field, where he asks why he killed the guy, and if he has other daughters. He has three other daughters. Chang says this is so he remembers his other daughters and spares them from a life of prostitution, and cuts off the father's arm below the elbow. You might be thinking: who appointed Chang as the one who gets to decide who needs to think about what and dish out moral justice and life lessons? And that would be a very pertinent question.
Then Julian (that's Gosling, remember) is in a room with his favorite sex worker, Mai, who ties his hands and feet to a chair, then masturbates in front of him. Julian has a vision in which he goes down a hallway toward an open door, and when he reaches in, his arm gets hacked off with the blade. So, restrained arms, arms reaching out hacked off. Then Julian's Mom arrives, Kristen Scott Thomas in Donatella Versace mode as a vicious, belittling monster, constantly smoking those especially thin cigarettes (a great touch). When Julian goes to see her, she grabs him around the waist in a hug that looks quite like she is blowing him. She asks why he didn't kill the father who killed Billy, and when Julian says that Billy raped and killed a sixteen-year-old, famously replies "I'm sure he had his reasons." She orders Julian to kill the father, "unless it's too much for you." When it proves too much, she hires her own thugs. They quickly dispatch the father, which reveals that Chang was also involved, so Mom includes him on her victims list.
SPOILERS > > >
From now on, a lot and nothing happens. There is a famous scene in which Julian takes Mai to meet Mom, who promptly calls her a cum dumpster and berates her for being a whore. She says that Julian is a drug dealer, that his cock is nowhere near as large as Billy's was and how can he ever live up to that? She also says that if the situation had been reversed, Billy would have brought her the killer's head on a platter, but Julian can't do anything. Scott-Thomas is quite good in the role, but she's a little too truly evil to say she's "fun." Similarly, those expecting another showy role for Gosling will be surprised to find that he is playing someone who has been completely castrated and is utterly impotent, in all senses of the word. He has 22 lines in the entire film, and spends the majority of it staring silently.
Two of Mom's thugs try to kill Chang, killing the entire clientele of a restaurant in the process, but missing Chang, who takes one of them to a guy with a wall-eyed son. He slices the guy open in front of the son. Chang has a young daughter at home, by the way. He finds one of mom's henchmen, who hired the two thugs, at... some kind of inexplicable parlor where women dress in floral dresses with long eyelashes. He tells the women to close their eyes, no matter what they hear, and the men to keep watching. You might be surprised how many sharp, deadly instruments are at hand in this seemingly benign environment. Mom's thug gets pinned to a chair (similar to the way Julian was tied to the chair earlier), and his eyes sliced, continuing the content about seeing or not not seeing. Toward the end, there's another whole section about Chang's daughter seeing a killing, that ties back to the other son seeing a killing.
< < < SPOILERS END
So it seems that Refn makes his films in a very loose, intuitive way that has a lot to do with dreams and associations and suchlike... which is to say, not meticulously laying out the themes and the structure and the characters and how all of it will work together. So it's kind if a "get what you can from it" situation, as opposed to a "figure out what he is saying" situation, which makes it surprising that his films do usually boil down pretty coherently into a statement.
So... you ever watch a gangster movie or one where someone orders a revenge hit on someone, and you think "Well, they killed to avenge the death of their child (or whoever), but the person they killed also had parents, and what about their rights, or their wish for revenge?" This movie takes up that question. When Chang metes out punishment to the father of the slain girl, you can tell that he sees himself in a position to decide who lives and dies, and who needs to learn what, etc. Then Mom arrives, and she also sees herself in a position to decide who lives or dies. So it's kind of about who can claim the right to pass judgement, and seeing as the title is "Only God Forgives," I'm fairly confident this is pretty right on. I'm also kind of stunned I didn't see anything about this in ANY other review of the film.
There's also all the content about hands and fists, and fists/arms as phalluses, and those being cut off. Then you have Julian as completely impotent, and we see a few visions of him getting his arms cut off, as well as one notable insertion of his arm into a forbidden place. And then there's all the content about seeing or not seeing, what men can see can and what women can see. The movie sets up a lot of recurring images and allusions, but lets you make sense of them for yourself.
So if you can take a movie being "boring" and can take a little violence--the fan of R-rated horror films will see little new or shocking--you've got quite a good, and absolutely gorgeous, movie waiting for you. And you'll get the added value of being smug and contrarian for liking a film no one else likes, and the vast majority of critics took a big whiff on.
I think so! If you can take slow and violent, you'll find a great movie here.