The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Only God Forgives

Written by Dario Llinares.

Photo from the article Nicolas Winding Refn’s oeuvre demonstrates a penchant for the stomped-on head or hacked-off limb. Explicitly gory and hyper-realised violence is innate to his cinematic vision evidenced from his early Pusher trilogy (1996-2005) and Valhalla Rising (2009), through super-cool cult classic Drive (2011) to his unapologetically brutal and bloodthirsty new release Only God Forgives (2013). Myriad questions surrounding cinematic violence - its context, representation, necessity and effect - have permeated academic and popular film criticism. It is possible to reduce much of this discourse down to a fairly straightforward ‘formalist versus realist’ dichotomy: does on-screen violence correlate in some way to the ‘real’ world or should it be understood purely on an aesthetic level, definable only within the specific film world from which it emanates? This is an age-old question that I do not want to tackle directly here. Instead, I wish to discuss how the intense, perspicuous violence in Only God Forgives can be read as a symbolic effect of the Oedipal drama that structures the relationship between brothers Julian (Ryan Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke), their mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), and the omniscient God figure Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

Violence acts as the register for character, narrative and theme throughout Only God Forgives. The opening of the film sees Billy and Julian assessing the skills of a young Thai kickboxer who fights in the Bangkok club they jointly run. Immediately, this form of sanctioned combat looks mild as Billy ventures into the underworld to satisfy his sadistic sexual urges by killing and raping an underage prostitute. Unlike Drive where the infamous elevator scene stands out for its explosive ferocity - signalling the shift in tone for the more violent second half of the film - Only God Forgives presents a grotesque miasmic tone of sick brutality from the outset. When the “Angel of Vengeance,” Lieutenant Chang, allows the girl’s father to beat Billy to death at the putrid scene of the rape (with her broken body still lying there), all bets are off as to where the film could go. Dismemberings, torture and ritualised execution are wince-inducingly rendered in a tone reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's ultra-violent A Clockwork Orange (1971) in that the precise stylisation adds a cold, rational intensity to the viciousness that makes it even more affecting. Despite what some have argued, I do not think this is merely the case of a director being superficially provocative for its own sake. Refn is attempting to strip the human condition to an elemental level, with violence, pain and death a material outcome of psychological suffering.

Julian is the centre of this symbolic tragedy. Like his brother, sex and violence are problematically central to his psyche. While Billy is a sadist, gaining pleasure from other’s pain, Julian’s proclivities are more masochistic as he derives dark ‘gratification’ out of both mental and physical self-harm. His regular meetings with prostitute Mai (Yaya-Ying) are alienated acts of voyeuristic gazing, which while reflecting the patriarchal power of looking, alludes to a psychological impecuniousness and guilt (perhaps a link to the helpless passivity of the cinema audience is being alluded to here). Julian never touches Mai while she masturbates, with Refn cutting between Julian’s vacant stare, Mai’s ‘performance’ of sexuality and, rather enigmatically, to his hands resting on his lap. Repeated lingering shots of Julian’s hands throughout the film allude to the need and ultimate impossibility of physical and emotional connection. The vacant, almost comatose performance of Ryan Gosling is an entirely deliberate - and one must assume specifically-directed - affectation that is designed to empty the character of all superficial exterior motivations so that the visual symbolism of alienation can operate at the most intense level.

Context of the brothers’ repressions and expressions of violence does manifest itself however, with the arrival of their mother, Crystal. Although this gangster matriarch does not enact physical violence herself, it spews from her being. Her intimidating sartorial façade and vicious, expletive-laden diatribes combine in the creation of a mythic iconography. She is mother as Medusa, but a designer-clad monster weaving a web of death around her like an ostentatious black widow. Immediately upon her arrival the Freudian complexity of her relationship with Julian becomes apparent. They meet in her dimly lit lair of a hotel room where she beckons him for a lingering kiss while stroking his backside. The incestuous suggestiveness unpins an overwhelming matriarchal power that obviously informs the psychological guilt of her sons. Dismayed that Julian has let the perpetrator of his brother’s killer go, Crystal spits at him: “If the tables were turned your brother would have found your killer and brought his head to me on a fucking platter.” Crystal’s attitude towards Julian swings between aggressive disappointment and sexual possessiveness, defining his emotional repression punctuated with eruptions of masochistic violence.

It is clear that the film is constructed upon the playing out of an Oedipal drama but with a hyper-realised aesthetic, with the form amplifying the affect of the trauma. The character’s lack of ‘characterisation’ is a purposed method of creating archetypes that stand in for elemental notions of the human psychological condition. Julian, who has killed his father in order to possess his mother, is wholly repressed by the Oedipus complex, but Crystal’s inordinate authority has rendered Julian fixated (in a Freudian sense) and unable to reach mature sexual identity. In what is seemingly a doomed attempt to gain his mother's approval, Julian pays Mai to join him for dinner with Crystal. The spectacularly crass abuse Crystal aims at Mai is part incestuous jealousy, part reassertion of control. Add into this the sibling rivalry that has obviously been manipulated by Crystal, exemplified by her humiliating comparison of her sons' penis sizes, and a clear impression emerges of Julian’s emasculation at the hands of his mother, who he has tried, and failed, to figuratively possess.

When Crystal later reveals that Julian killed his own father back in the United States (which explains the brothers being in Thailand), the film’s literal playing out of the Oedipal drama is confirmed. Chang’s role in the tragedy becomes further ingrained at this point. Through his seeking vengeance he embodies the returning patriarch, his god-like power serving to reassert the symbolic order, i.e. the centrality of the Father. Chang is the structuring anchor of the entire filmic universe - an omnipotent tutelary force with an old-testament judicial method. There is something both primordial and ritualistic about Lt. Chang’s machete-wielding acts of punishment. The machete itself is the phallic weapon of choice, literally and symbolically killing through violent penetrative thrusts. Everyone’s destiny is subject to this all-powerful deity/demon from which there is no escape. Chang’s foray into karaoke is perhaps a satirical wink reminding the audience that omnipotence imbues narcissistic ‘performance’ - his audience sits in rapt silence, like all credulous followers, out of pure fear and obedience. The fight sequence between Chang and Julian serves as a confrontation between god/devil/father and son attempting to claim power. Interestingly, although Only God Forgives has a loose narrative anyway, this fight sequence seems to sit completely outside the cause and effect logic of the film, suggesting a wholly symbolic Oedipal confrontation.

After Julian is defeated, but not killed, by Chang - the latter’s only act of mercy in the film - Crystal becomes victim to the Lieutenant's vengeful wrath. In her hotel room, Chang executes Crystal with a lethal piercing blow that reasserts the phallic power to which she has been a constant challenge. In a crucial scene, Julian subsequently discovers Crystal’s body. He silently cuts upon her stomach and slowly inserts his hand inside and then removes it. This seminal moment intimates Julian’s regression back to, and subsequent breaking away from, symbolic protection/control of the mother’s womb. Its grotesque corporeal explicitness is fundamental to Julian’s castration anxiety, which underpins his repression, representing the moment of confrontation in which he is perhaps able break the matriarchal curse. By this point in the film it is difficult to discern what is going on in ‘reality’ and what is a vision from Julian’s subconscious. The final scene of Julian holding his arms out, with Chang apparently about to cut them off, is an ultimate act of retributive, sadomasochistic punishment - once again emphasizing the the brutal trauma of Julian’s inner guilt.

The question remains: is the explicitly hyper-realised violence actually necessary to underpin the potency of meaning here? In one sense, a charge of pushing the visual extremes of violence merely to shock has some validity in that the motivation and outcome of these brutal acts seem wholly abstract. There is no sense of an ethical framework of punishment to Chang’s justice - it’s arbitrary and so there is no sense a Manichean, ‘good versus evil’ moral universe. Violence thus has no reasoning or moral justification and becomes a mythical concept that never brings about resolution beyond a reduction to total nihilism. Furthermore, one could assert that the stylised baroque beauty empties the violence of anything beyond superficial, self-conscious aestheticism. The audacity of Only God Forgives lies in the way that violence is an absolute result of the biblical and psychoanalytical thematics. The film is looking to work on a primal level of emotional ‘affect’, and the extremities of the violence, both visual and symbolic, are aimed at producing a visceral, subconscious reaction. Nicolas Winding Refn is thus deliberately setting out to make the film as difficult to watch as possible, pushing the audience as far as he can towards the elemental feelings of love, hate, pain and death.

This Alternate Take was published on August 21, 2013.

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