Let’s just get this out of the way up front so that everyone’s on the same page: I have no idea what Only God Forgives is about. I don’t understand it. I don’t know what it’s trying to say, if it’s trying to say anything at all, and I’m not even sure those involved in its making could honestly tell me, if I were to ask them. It’s a surrealist nightmare, weird and abstract, soporific in spots, needlessly artistic, pretentious, preposterous and maddening. It also happens to be compulsively watchable, violent to a faulty degree, nihilistic, seedy, slimy, energetic, filled with characters for whom a moral compass pointing north is divulging sexual fantasies about their son to a total stranger, darkly comic, depressing and thoroughly unapologetic. It leaves things on a sticky note, and couldn’t care less if it doesn’t contain even one character sewn through with a thread of common decency. By all accounts, this should be a hateful, awful film…and yet, I can’t stop thinking about it.
There are always movies we’re drawn to in strange and metaphysical ways, even if we don’t “get” them. Sometimes movies aren’t supposed to be “gotten,” so much as experienced. Last Year at Marienbad is like that. So is L’avventura. Just a few weeks ago, I watched Luis Bunuel’s existential classic The Exterminating Angel for the first time. I have no idea what the hell happened during that two hour span of time, but I know I’ll return to it again at some point in the future to see if I can figure it all out. All three of those movies challenge viewers to make up their own minds about what is and isn’t real on screen, and Only God Forgives does that, too, with an added test to your gag reflex. This is a sadistically violent movie that was booed vociferously by critics at Cannes in May. The way those critics liked to tell it at the time, Only God Forgives was some kind of amoral affront to the civil sensibilities of the common man, an abomination of epic proportions that writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn tried to pass off as serious arthouse fare. But, I don’t think that’s quite right. Do you think the same man who made movies like Bronson, Valhalla Rising, and Drive could be careless enough to pull off such a colossal blunder? Me either. And yet, it seems like he sure as hell tried.
I’d try to give you an idea of the story, but none exists. There’s no traditional narrative to speak of. This is so far from formalist filmmaking, there’s little wonder in a closing title card that reads “For Alejandro Jodorowsky,” a man responsible for some of the most bizarre surrealist filmmaking in cinema history. The frames are loose cross-sections of an unspecified period of time in Thailand. Julian (Ryan Gosling) sells drugs with his brother, Billy (Tom Burke), and uses the proceeds to fund a bare-knuckle boxing ring. Fueled by drugs one night, Billy rapes and murders a teenage girl. The local cop, a mercurial cipher known as Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), discovers that the girl’s father submitted to the assault in exchange for cash. Chang tells the father he can be alone with Billy for a few minutes. “Do what you want with him,” he says, so the man bashes Billy’s head in with a baseball bat. Later, Chang takes the man to an abandoned park and amputates his hand with a sword for allowing his daughter to come to harm, before setting off on a psychotic mission to punish everyone involved in the girl’s death.
The straightforward narrative moments are few and far between, and are intended only to push the movie forward. Julian’s mother, Crystal, arrives in Thailand to bury her first-born son, and to say that she’s unlike any character I’ve ever seen is an understatement. This is a real piece of work, the head of the family’s drug cartel who has fostered an Oedipal need in her sons to keep them nice and submissive to her psychotic whims. So twisted is this woman, that it seems almost requisite when she describes her son’s manhood to a complete stranger in excruciating detail. She’s ruthless as hell, too, as when she orders two lackeys to take out Chang (for various reasons I won’t cover here), and later, his young daughter — just for good measure. Kristin Scott Thomas has a tricky job to do: one wrong move and she takes Crystal into parody. But she’s too smart an actress for that, and plays the matriarch straight as an arrow, without a hint of humor or irony. It’s truly chilling to watch. Chang fulfills his calling with icy precision by taking out the guilty in increasingly gruesome ways, and Julian, through it all, struggles to comprehend the violence going on around him. He seems to be the one character in the film who isn’t good, but who isn’t entirely bad, either.
Refn is a remarkably canny visualist. He bathes the film in a dreamy quality, mostly seen from Julian’s point of view, so that we’re never quite sure if what we’re watching is real. Refn helps this idea along with jump cuts and other visual tricks that might have been right at home in 50s French New Wave, but they never seem to be for show. He fills his frames with deep reds and bright whites, tracking shots down illuminated hallways, and characters who seem frozen in time, never moving from position. Is all of this simply Julian’s nightmare of what his life has become? Gosling says few words throughout the entire film, but we’re never less than certain that Julian’s traumatic life has numbed him to a point of non-existence. And what about Chang, who moves like a ghost, meting out justice that, frankly, makes him no better than the sadistic Crystal? Could he be a product of Julian’s guilt for having chosen such a wrong path down the road to oblivion? Refn is cagey with his information, giving little, and leaving a lot to interpretation.
But, as I said, I have no idea what Only God Forgives is really about. It’s tough to watch at times, but never difficult to get through, and contains some of the best cinematography I’ve seen this year. It’s a movie I’ll certainly return to as time goes on, to try to find the keys to unlocking its deep mysteries. Should you see Only God Forgives? That depends on your taste. Certainly, movies like this can’t be qualified in simple terms of good or bad. And it isn’t really the kind of movie you say you “liked.” If you’re up for a challenging arthouse film and don’t mind the violence, then by all means, give it a whirl. But if you’re stuck in a hopelessly formalist world where three complete acts are a must, or you’re turned off by people getting their eyes carved out, then I’d steer clear completely.