Nicolas Winding Refn’s earlier venture, Drive, revolved around an ordinary man who felt compelled to embody an ideal action hero. Circumstances present him with the opportunity (and fate) of fulfilling this action hero persona he not only wants to be, but, believes he is. Here, Julian, a terrified boy haunted by mystic tales of a moral reprimander Chang, is thrown into circumstances that force him to confront this ghoul, who also happens to be his worst nightmare. Both films bear similar intent and share the same language. They are based on real emotions, but set in a heightened reality.
The troubled and tortured Julian is both heart and soul of this terribly bleak world. He is the first tragic character in the Refn universe. Ryan Gosling discards his tough guy persona (largely evident in Drive and for a shorter span of time in The Place beyond the Pines) and delivers his most complex performance yet. Just watch him paralyzed with fear when Chang first sets his eyes on him. Or his mouth quiver when a trailed Chang is suddenly nowhere to be seen.
What makes Vithaya Pansringaram such an unforgettable embodiment of horror? A combination of his receding hairline (which is befitting to Chang’s all-knowing nature and intuitive ability), the nonchalant expression borne throughout on his face (you won’t see a hint of remorse) and the fact that he treats both his professions, karaoke singing and slicing limbs, with equal importance. The way the film cuts between him at both of his fortes brings about a matter-of-fact routinely nature, as if it was just another working day. Refn pits Julian and Chang against each other in a fight sequence choreographed with deep thought that will subvert all prior expectations. I expose this to you because it wasn’t nearly what I was expecting.
Kristin Scott Thomas channelizes Crystal, Julian’s mother, a woman who possesses the survival instincts and domination-seeking tendencies of an apex predator. She wouldn’t think twice to serve up her little sacrificial lamb on a silver platter. It’s a delicate role that could veer off into caricature, but Thomas conveys her unapologetic nature so effectively that the abominable Crystal fits in Refn’s world perfectly. The auteur has a clear-cut vision of his characters even though their extreme characterizations tend to border on archetypal.
I’ve never in my cinema-associated life felt a stronger and keener sense of dread. And knowing that this mirrors Julian’s own sense of dread only elevates Only God Forgives in my eyes. Seriously, has there ever been a piece of music to intentionally evoke a sense of queasiness? Or stomach-churning fright? Cliff Martinez seems to have achieved both of these milestones here.
This horror mood piece is intense, sharply impressionistic and Refn’s most definitive work to date. I’ve, seen...no, experienced nothing like it.
Spoiler filled Interpretation and Analysis-
Julian and his brother Billy, own a kick boxing club, behind the facade of which exists heavy drug transactions. Billy appears to be the guy who runs things around here while Julian seems to stand behind and watch, as if he had no hand or say in the way things went about.
Billy decides to embrace the voracious appetite of his inner sexual animal, even if it seeks nothing less than the forbidden fruit. He’s denied at first, then shooed off. His overblown male sexual entitlement (probably arising from being constantly compared to his emasculated brother) kicks in, making him feel an insufferable sense of indignation. The devil inside emerges, conquers him, and preys upon a sixteen-year old girl, who is raped and murdered.
The angel of vengeance, Chang, is summoned. He surveys the blood soaked room (Billy has apparently created a work of abstract art on the walls with the girl’s blood) and calls for the girl’s father. A big-set, droopy man (an intentional casting decision?) who seems to have just woken up from his sleep follows, genuinely puzzled about what this really is. Chang shows him the corpse of his daughter. The man shows signs of anger and pain, but not of guilt or regret. He’s allowed to dismantle Billy bone by bone, which he does relentlessly. The camera pulls away from the scene, letting us feel the intensity of the act through sound, light and shadow. Chang’s work here is not finished. He takes the man to a deserted place and cuts off his arm, ensuring that he takes on the responsibility of his other three daughters.
Julian is a character grappling with a myriad of issues, each of which is exhausting by itself. Firstly, his rational fear of being amputated stings his every waking moment. He’s heard tales of Chang, the moral reprimander who punishes with his blunt sword anyone who preys on the weak. Being involved indirectly in the drug scene himself, Julian knows, and fears, of his oncoming fate, that of his fists being amputated. But, the boy doesn’t seem to be able to muster up enough courage to stand up to his brother. Or his mother, who eventually overrides his recently gained authority post Billy’s demise. He, instead, suffers silently anticipating the worst. When his prostitute girlfriend Mai forces him to confront his submissive nature, he screams at her. It’s embarrassing seeing Gosling scream at her like he does here, but it seems like that was the intended reaction, because Julian is, after all, an overgrown boy, throwing one of his tantrums. He can’t stand up to Billy, whom he dislikes but whose death he chooses to avenge anyway, because it’s what he believes he should do, in principle. He waits outside the man’s house, along with a few other gangsters. He’s at ease (a singular moment in the film) and casually feeds a wandering dog to pass time before the man shows up. There’s really no passion behind this supposed act of vengeance. He’s also the last person to advance on his brother’s murderer. When asked why his brother was murdered, the man narrates. It all sounds wildly familiar to Julian, who, now, feels the clutch of Chang, his worst nightmare. The vision of being amputated is a recurring image in his head. Even when alone at the confines of his large home, he feels Chang lurking around every corner.
Julian’s mother, Crystal, arrives from another country, but Julian can’t feel a thing. He’s emotionally numb (he fails to catch Mai’s smile wear off in response to being asked to pretend to be his girlfriend) and desensitized, living every day in a depersonalized daze (fully justified by the surrealistic mood). He’s lost touch with any positive emotion and is squeezed of all spirit. The only sensation that feels real to him is his fear of Chang. To make matters worse, his mother continuously belittles him for falling short as a man. Julian lives a life of fear and emasculation, feeling no control over events that affect him or those that might affect him. However, he has bursts of aggression when struck by emasculation, when he’s made to feel lesser of a man than he wants to be. This pattern is seen again in his castration anxiety, where he avoids such a scenario of emasculation, by restraining himself to a chair, while watching Mai pleasure herself. His sexual fantasies are repeatedly interrupted by visions of a brooding Chang. When Chang first sets his eyes on him, he’s paralyzed by fear. When Chang says, “He’s not the one,” Julian feels released from his grasp and let off the hook. He uses this opportunity to trail him and rat out his mother to save his own skin. But he never catches up, contemplating, equally afraid of being abandoned by his manipulative mother. Chang is suddenly nowhere to be seen. Julian panics, his body trembling and his mouth quivering. To escape from this state of fear and this life of emasculation, he must take on and overcome his worst nightmare. To escape from his nightmare, he must endure this dreamy daze of emasculation. To be forgiven by Chang, he must rat out his mother, who fuels to his castration anxiety (metaphorically), and risk being abandoned by her. To cut a long story short, whichever way he goes, he has heavy prices to pay.
Julian’s urge to rat out his mother resurfaces when he goes over to the karaoke bar where Chang works, but remains rooted to the spot in fear. Mai, who wants to encourage him on this quest, walks up to Chang’s second-in-command and brings him over. Julian watches from a distance, emasculated. A burst of aggression surges through him. He walks over to Chang and, on impulse, challenges him to a fight. Watch Gosling struggle to hold back his fear when Chang stares at him in disbelief on being half-heartedly asked something that most people wouldn’t have even entertained in their minds. He scans Julian’s physique before deciding that it might just be an even match-up.
The film cuts to Julian taking baby steps into his arena, getting ready for the fight. There’s a soft, subtle emphasis on his footsteps, which had a strangely discomfiting effect on me. Julian’s frail stance is as flimsy as his mental state when he physically engages Chang. He fights, but without a fighting spirit. Crystal happens to show up, but makes an exit upon seeing the infamous Chang, letting her son be ravaged by the beast. But Julian continues to pick himself up and try. Would he rather be put out of his misery than endure this living hell? Would he rather receive his comeuppance than constantly anticipate it in fear? Mai leaves the scene too, realizing that momma’s boy would rather be beaten to death than cut off the umbilical cord. Chang, done with his work here, walks away. Julian just lays there abandoned in the centre of his own arena. He’s weak and helpless, sorry and pathetic. The outcome of this duel is determined, not by technique or raw strength, but purely by the loci of control of its participants, which exist on diametrically opposite ends. One guy feels absolutely powerless and unable to retain control over his life. Another guy thinks he’s God, forcing his immediate surroundings to function within boundaries that fall in line with his own moral compass. Personally, this was the most affecting scene sequence in the film for me. It evokes the same intense pity and empathy aroused from seeing a helpless, domesticated animal being mercilessly beaten to death. Even the torture scene involving the gangster who orchestrated the hit on Chang, although more gruesome, somehow doesn't cut as deep. I figure this is because he doesn’t possess the quality of innocence that Julian does.
Julian isn’t yet his own man. He turns to his mother. The silence, following the duel, shared between Julian and his mother is excruciating, until it’s broken by her spewing more of her characteristic venom. Earlier in the film, when Billy’s murderer is done away with, Crystal moves on to her next concern “How’s business?” Was this a move of vengeance? Or simply an assertion of power?
Julian’s last resort is to eliminate Chang once and for all, but he doesn’t have it in him to go through with it. He returns home and finds mother dead. He cuts her stomach and puts his hand into her uterus. This unexpectedly shocking scene appears to be Julian’s attempt to verify his fear of being abandoned and replaced with another impending child.
On the surface, Only God Forgives appears to be a crime thriller doused in revenge and betrayal. But the film digs far deeper than that; into the character’s internal struggles, as in the case of Julian, or lack thereof, as in the cases of the remorseless Chang and the unapologetic Crystal. Chang has an unwavering moral compass and operates through three of his masculine archetypes- King, Warrior, and Lover. Crystal, has no moral compass, but has enough faith in herself and a wrath towards people to acquire the power she feels entitled to. Julian, caught between the two, has neither faith in himself nor the world around him. That his morals are muddled and lacking in clarity further prevents him from going on his own path.
A question regarding the film’s conclusion- does Chang amputate him? Chang’s an intuitive individual; he had to take one look at Julian to know that it wasn’t him who was responsible for the death of his brother’s killer. What does this mean, really? That he sensed Julian’s fear and decided that the boy was ‘God’ fearing? Chang, who had foreseen the hit on him, would’ve certainly intuited that Julian not only spared, but saved, his daughter’s life. Would this have led Chang to forgive Julian? The amputation scene of Julian’s fists had ‘Chang vision’ playing, a track used earlier to underscore Julian’s frightful visions. It questions the reality of the scene and the film’s conclusion. Plus, let’s not forget what Chang had said earlier to the gangster- “You have an opportunity here.” Does that mean that this ‘God’ does forgive, after all? Does the answer to this question exist in the film’s title? I would’ve jumped at that, if only the closing track hadn’t such an elegiac tone to it, as if Refn was mourning Julian’s fists. Irrespectively, the petrified and submissive Julian makes up his mind to surrender to Chang’s oncoming seal-your-fate arrival. Honestly, I think being amputated would be the happier ending for Julian. He'd be able to pick himself up without continuing to live in fear and emasculation.
What’s with Refn’s career-long fetish to put strong, brooding men in mental prisons? Is it to contrast the strength of their physique with the weakness of their psyche? Why does he seek to test the masculine spirit of his characters? Does he believe it is something worth endlessly fighting for? Or should you sacrifice it and learn helplessness? Refn’s interested in what drives man and fuels this spirit, which is precisely what helps him survive; even if it’s hate that fuels it. Does he believe this ruthless nature is one to be embraced and integrated with?
Post Bronson, Refn’s been interested in the submissive side of man. Both Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives have their lead character aware of their respective fates, which they eventually submit to. One Eye misinterprets his fear to be a prophetic vision while Julian, on the other hand, knows right from the start what’s coming to him. This submissive nature becomes most evident in Julian, and less so in One-Eye, who submits to the tribe, finding consolation, first, in believing that he sacrificed himself heroically for a boy, and, secondly, in fantasizing a dignified death by drowning. Jaguar Paw would’ve run for his life.