Film Review: ‘Only God Forgives’ is a problematic, distancing art film


675662-ogf_largeNote: This is an in-depth analytical review, several weeks after the U.S. premiere of this film. It may contain spoilers.

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After breaking out in Hollywood with the visceral Drive in 2011, Danish-born director Nicolas Winding Refn returns with a rather problematic though ambitious art film: Only God Forgives.  Featuring a stylized, fractured approach to storytelling, the only thing Refn’s latest has in common with his last film is its lead actor Ryan Gosling, extravagant violence and a standout soundtrack by Cliff Martinez. Otherwise, Refn has gone off to explore the edges of cinema in search of reinvention. On a superficial level he succeeds, but in another, deeper level, it all feels a tad amateurish and self-aware.

Dedicating his film to the great surrealist film pioneer Alejandro Jodorowsky, Only God Forgives melds a violent world with the violent consciousness of the film’s anti-hero Julian (Gosling). It’s an interesting set-up to ultimate disappointment, as rgosling-ogfRefn leaves out the great existential and confusing mysteries of life that inform the work of Jodorowsky (read my interview with him). On a practical level, one can blame Refn for failing to stir up sympathy for his characters by skimping on back story and simplistically relegating unhappiness and general bumbling on the part of his hero to an abusive relationship with his mother. It’s the ease with which Jodorowsky taps into profound meta-thematic elements through trippy visuals that have made him a legend, and it comes from a state of loving humanity, something wholly absent from Only God Forgives.

Julian and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) run a drug ring in Bangkok using a boxing gym as a front  so that their mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) might live a lavish life in the states (most likely L.A.). One night, Billy heads out in search of a teenage prostitute to satisfy his urges. Billy, only established as a cold and distant figure who speaks in a monotone and seems to sleepwalk through life like a deadpan character out of a David Lynch movie, winds up raping and beating to death a 16-year-old hooker with little remorse.

The father of the deceased is then invited to the murder scene by Police Captain Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) with Billy still covered in the girl’s blood, perched on the edge of a bed. Chang offers the father a chance to exact whatever revenge he may see fit, so the father proceeds to beat Billy with a baseball bat until he cracks his head wide open. Only-God-Forgives-ChangNext, Chang brandishes his ever-present katana, which he unveils from behind his back (you never see its sheath) and slices off one of the father’s hands. Chang informs him that the punishment is for prostituting his three daughters, not for his subsequent justice upon the perp.

Soon after, Crystal storms into the picture rampaging and dressed like a “Real Housewife of New Jersey.” We meet her as she confronts a hotel clerk who informs her that her room will not be ready until four o’clock in the afternoon. She asks for a manager and tells him, “I just traveled 10,000 miles to identify the body of my first-born son, and this fucking bitch won’t give me my room.”

Crystal gets all the good lines in the film. She seems quite aware of who she is, and Thomas embodies her with aplomb. All the men in the film may as well be mute, as only Crystal offers a one-sided form of dialogue that sheds some shred of motivation behind Julian’s actions and fantasies, as, like his brother, he seems resigned to a state of somnambulance.

540x309-14668_8626fRefn sacrifices tautness that could add to the suspense of Crystal’s and Julian’s quest for vengeance for choice scenes between mother and son that feel pathetically humorous. They not only leave Julian castrated but also castrates the film’s tension. In the middle of the film, mother and son find time for a decadent dinner out. Julian is so meek a man, he resorts to asking his favorite hooker Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) to pretend to be his girlfriend. Prior to this dinner, their only scene of “intimacy” involved Mai tying his hands to a chair while she masturbated in front of him. If this wasn’t symbolic enough of his repression, as he watches her, his mind drifts off to one of his many fantasy sequences where his hands are chopped off. And on the film drones and dwells.

As soon as Julian introduces Mai to his mother as his girlfriend, Crystal sees through the pretense. Asking Mai what line of work she is in, Mai responds that she is an entertainer. “An entertainer? And how many cocks can you entertain with that cute little cum-dumpster of yours?” After dinner,only-god-forgives-76 Julian blames Mai for failing to keep up the façade and yells at her to give him back the dress he had gifted her, right there, outside the restaurant. It’s one of the many scenes that lend the film a cartoonish quality that only serves to alienate the audience and relegate women as either comic relief or mere props.

The ultimate-eye-roll-worthy pretense arrives during another scene where Julian seems to drift away into a fantasy sequence where he discovers his mother’s corpse. With Chang’s katana somehow handy he cuts open her abdomen and slowly puts his hand inside and toward the uterus from whence he came. Clearly this is a film more interested in metaphors than characters mixed up in misogynist undertones that plague the heart of this story. While Chang extends eviscerating justice with his phallic weapon without fail and seems invincible, the bitch mother is all bark with little effective bite except on her own spawn. When Chang and Crystal meet, her last words are a write-off of never having come to terms with her younger son. “Billy was my first son,” she tells Chang. “We had a very special relationship. Julian was so jealous. It was like he was cracked or something. He had paranoid delusions about us.” After she calls Julian “a very dangerous boy,” Chang silences her with a thrust to her throat.

That Julian turns to fantasy to cope with his loss, and a gruesome fantasy at that, does not depict mother issues. This is a man far gone beyond reconciling a Oedipal complex. This represents someone who has lost his value for the gift of his own life. movies-only-god-forgives-still-9A return to the womb can provide him no relief, as this womb literally seems long dead. Death is his best and only alternative. But all he gets is a seemingly pointless life that never comes to a satisfactory end by the film’s credits and feels unrelatable and, worse, rather forgettable.

Indeed, contrary to his mother’s warning, nothing in Julian’s actions in the film present him as dangerous. Julian invites Chang into his boxing gym by telling him, “Wanna fight?” He removes his jacket, and casually stalks around Chang as he rolls up his sleeves and loosens his tie. Chang simply stands rigid, arms at his side. In the end, Julian never lands a single blow as Chang evades every swing and strikes Julian at every opportunity, leaving the man-boy bruised, battered and ultimately disfigured on his own floor.

Pansringarm embodies the police captain with not a menacing swagger but a focused determination as cold as anything else in the movie. He offers no mercy and seems cruel with a god-like complex of indestructibility. His human side is depicted in his caring for a young daughter (they exchange no significant dialogue, and he gives her little more than a pat on the head). He enjoys singing at karaoke bars in front of his men, but karaoke scenes are also a Thai film trope. In Refn’s hands these scenes mean nothing beyond his indulgence in style. Unlike actual Thai films by Thai directors, the songs Chang sings are never translated in subtitles, are incomplete and seem chosen for their sonic, affected syntax. Rather than adding a layer of narrative that this film so desperately needs, the two scenes with Chang singing only offer another bit of flash that some of the more uncultured viewers will just find humorous.

onlygodforgives7900x506The most memorable character in Only God Forgives turns out to be Crystal as the domineering woman who in turn dominates the narrative. With her children depicted as impotent spawn, as personified by the sad-sack quality of Julian who only seems to clumsily improvise through life haunted by the reminder that Crystal has regrets of not having aborted him from her womb, she consistently rises above the droning monotony with language. “When I was pregnant with you,” she tells Julian, “it was strange. You were different. They wanted me to terminate, but I wouldn’t, and you’re right. I don’t understand you.”

When Crystal sends Julian out to avenge Billy, it is no wonder that he sabotages one opportunity after another to fail her. The trouble with Julian’s inconsistent character is that he is such a developmentally retarded man that he only feels contempt for those he knows intimately. Otherwise, he’s fine with letting go his brother’s killer because his bother may have just deserved what he got. Family second. When Julian is given a chance to kill Chang’s daughter he kills his would-be partner in crime instead. All the while he seems to await Chang’s deadly blow which arrives only in moments of fantasy. Any sense that this may be a chance at redemption seems buried under a mixed message of indulgent violence and passionless characterization.

only_god_forgives_3-620x435The film world is a fantasy world at its most superficial and a mirror to our lives at its deepest. Beyond the flashy cinematography by the quite competent Larry Smith, the film’s soul yawns with a gaping lack of deeper development that I, like Refn, so desperately wanted of this film. With these cold, unsympathetic characters steeped in violence and little, if any redeeming qualities, Refn cannot seem to turn away from glamorizing their malaise with bombastic visual panache and little substance. It’s beyond the fact that they are only painted with negative morals with little back story. It’s the reductive quality as mere archetypes without the substance. Mystery is cool, but it’s clear these central characters are just a bunch of drug-dealing, misanthropic assholes who deserve to be killing each other off. It alienates the audience as superficially as the Avengers franchise would anyone looking for something more than an escapist cartoon.

Many point to the film’s oneric narrative and visual, neon-drenched lighting and a decadent style that permeates the film in general as its high quality. Style may keep you from nodding off, but it can also leave one cold and shrugging. only-god-forgives-ryan-goslingFaces of the conflicted are presented in fractured light, a film noir trope defined more than 60 years ago that feels eye-rollingly cliché by now. The stagey mise-en-scène comes across as flashy and self-conscious. With nasty characters who never seem to earn the right amount of sympathy to warrant the dread the director tries so hard to brew up, Only God Forgives falls flat and far from the classic that will stand up to longtime scrutiny. This is not a Last Year At Marienbad, a Blue Velvet or even an equal to a Jodorowsky movie. This is just a failed ego-trip by a director who seems blinded by his own light show and has lost sight of the bigger picture in a well-intentioned effort to create a challenging film that only feels challenging for the wrong reasons.

Hans Morgenstern

The original Red Band trailer:

Only God Forgives is rated R (it’s gruesome) and runs 90 minutes. It is now playing in the South Florida area exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque in Miami Beach. It expands to O Cinema in Miami Shores on Thursday, Aug. 8.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)


  1. You make some really good points that I can’t argue with. However, when it comes down to the end of the day, I’d rather spend 90 minutes watching this than 2 Guns starring Denzel & Wahlberg. At least he’s doing something different, whether its old school cliche and pretentious.

    Excellent review though, I enjoyed it thoroughly. 🙂

      • Hans, thanks for answering my request to articulate your point of view. Bravo!…even though I personally disagree this time with many of your points, especially the implications that the audience is not engaged. What i can add here is that ONLY GOD FORGIVES is the record breaking film at Miami Beach Cinematheque. And that includes record for engagement and discussion, which is a good thing. Everyone has a different take on this film, and most have had a great interest in processing and developing those takes. So thanks for entering with your’s, better late than never. I knew you would have an articulate and interesting approach, and this is one of the best “negative” approaches out there. We needed some good negatives to balance the numerous well written positives. Funny thing, of course, is that what some people see as negative, others see as positive, and visa versa.

        Look for a list with links to some of the best (both positive and negative) reviews and articles on our website now that we are coming to a close of the run (but it’s not over yet…it has been extended again!). Your take definitely makes the grade as I figured it would, no matter what you had to say about it.

        • Thanks for including me as ever. We can go deeper. Jodorowsky has shown that, Refn still has some growth to get there. I appreciate the effort, though. And I appreciate your comment here! You’re so silent here otherwise, and your venue is the home for most of my favorite art films! Congrats on the exclusive (which helps with the sell-out draw, but so does the hardcore fan-boy world Refn has always attracted).

  2. Well done, Hans. I was put off by the trailer but still debated on whether to watch it. After reading you have convinced me to watch Last Year at Marienbad instead.

    • Once you go ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ you don’t go back… :). Cosford cinema is currently hosting quite a retrospective on the director, Alain Resnais. They already showed a 35mm print of ‘Marienbad’ last weekend.

  3. Can you expand upon this statement?

    “Any sense that this may be a chance at redemption seems buried under a mixed message of indulgent violence and passionless characterization.”

    I tend to interpret Chang and Julian’s mother — the god-like and the satanic — as spheres of influence and Julian as somewhere between them. Both hold a key to his future. His freedom might be furthered diminished if his mother continues to wield her power over him and, perhaps, Billy exists as someone Julian might eventually become. Chang, Julian recognizes, I think, can free him from the mutilation of his soul…

    • Hello, Kelly! Thanks for following my blog. I did see your review too. If anything, this film is indeed quite a conversation piece, though I do think the movie has fundamental issues in that there is a lot of flash with little substance. That is kind of what I am saying in the quote you are asking me about. The redundancy of the violence, the aimlessness of Julian, whose as lost a soul as you might create. There is some nice baggage depicted in his relationship with him mother beyond her talking down to him. However, it all seems too late for me to care about him. Yes, these may be archetypes that ask the viewer to project, but it’s all so bare and obvious, I found it kind of dull.

      I do like your theory, but again, presenting the mother as satanic plays into the misogynism that underlies the depiction of the women in this film with boys only running about concerned about their phalluses, Julian with his often severed and, at one point even tied up, extensions: his hands and Chang with his invincible, sharp blade. Is Julian’s death by his blade really the redemption he needs? Is that the only solution to his mutilated soul, as you so poetically put it?

  4. We interpret, it sounds, one scene rather differently (in terms of what is literally happening in it). I do not see Julian as dying at the end. I see him as submitting to Chang and as losing his hands; hands which, in my view, have been the vehicle to communicate the disconnect between the person he actually is (the person who drags a man violently through a hallway) and the person he wants to be (the one who uses them to give pleasure to another, as he does Mai).

    With that in mind — the fact that he is not dying but rather is being set free and given a chance like the father of the murdered girl [the father given the chance to consider his obligations to those daughters still living] — I interpret that conclusion, it sounds, rather differently than you. I interpret it as redemptive.

    I am not sure how to engage with the charge of mysogynism that might be leveled if, as I think she might, the mother personifies the satanic. Suppose there were no argument; that such an association really did communicate mysogynism. If that charge of mysogynism were true, though I don’t think it is, it would not itself bear on whether the director intended the association between the mother and the satanic.

    I agree. This picture is a great conversation piece.

    • I am enjoying our exchange. Allow me to clarify: I never said Julian dies at the end (if I was obscure it was due to my trepidation of noting a spoiler). Death would have fit him more fairly, actually.

      He denies Mai pleasure by binding his hands, however, and she is a prostitute, not a girlfriend, so any depth in their relationship is moot. The fact that he is allowed to carry on existing despite having his hands severed is a cruel stunting of any growth– if there were ever any room for him to grow. The father of the girl goes on to die, so so much for his chance. This film just does not reach that satisfactory level of redemption. It’s about wallowing in misery. Refn, I was told, worships women, so he’s no misogynist. But he proves that they are a mystery to him (his films are very masculine), hence the film’s rather unintentional misogynistic undertones.

      As I stated in the review, he’s no Jodorowsky. Maybe he has some maturing to do as a filmmaker. He’s certainly worthy of interest, but this is just a flawed, though well-intended film. I’m hoping for better in his next film.

      I am not sure how to engage with the charge of mysogynism that might be leveled if, as I think she might, the mother personifies the satanic. Suppose there were no argument; that such an association really did communicate mysogynism. If that charge of mysogynism were true, though I don’t think it is, it would not itself bear on whether the director intended the association between the mother and the satanic.

      • I remember that scene (where Mai binds his hands). The couplet I had in mind was when Julian was sitting watching (who I thought was) Mai and he extends his hands through some dangling something-or-others and begins to use them to give her pleasure. This takes place in his imagination and, if I recall correctly, he is sort of distracted from that fantasy by noisy men in proximity. One he then drags across the floor. It was a sort of contrast, I felt, between a sort of sensitivity or gentleness that he wants to be in his imagination and a sort of violence or anger that manifests in his reality. It is the hands, in both scenes, that are the vehicle to communicate something deeper within him.

        The exact nature of his particular relationship with Mai – or whether this was even Mai – is not, I think, relevant to what I suggest as his inner-disconnectedness. (Though, I think, perhaps, there is more going simply than a man frequenting a prostitute. This is another topic, however).

        As for his carrying on, following the conclusion, without the use of his hands, I did not interpret that as a stunting of his growth. Because of my own background, I associated it with words one of the Gospel authors attributes to Christ; something to the effect of if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off for it is better to enter the kingdom of God with one hand, then fall into darkness with both. I really do feel there is something redemptive about the conclusion of this film. (In that respect I would like to re-watch Valhalla Rising, because I recall something similar existing in the conclusion with One-Eye).

        Finally, I must simply defer to your expertise about the technical aspects of this picture. Simply put, I know what I like (and, honestly, this wasn’t really it), but it’s the themes -or what I suppose a possible construct to be – that I find of interest. That interest would, no doubt, be complemented by more familiarity with how what a filmmaker communicates through his medium but, I am afraid, that expertise is beyond me.

        • That’s interesting: so you really didn’t like this film? At least that says something: that the film has stirred up so much discussion. I do like what you bring to the film from the Gospels. I think it may be deeper than what Refn intended, but that’s the sign of a better film than most: that we can bring our own intellect and baggage to the work and pull out a greater depth. I really would not credit the filmmaker for creating these meanings that you bring from your education, but that’s the magic of cinema as the mirror.

          I still think Julian is just an angry, clumsy wimp– certainly no Christ-figure. He’s not cutting off his hand, Chang is. In the meantime, he fantasies about the loss of his hands, for they do seem his bane to bear. It’s just too weak a character to care for in the lead. I mean, possibly, Refn could be pulling a Kubrick thing where he creates a cold, rather unrelatable character for a bigger statement, but the film does not seem focused enough for that. Julian only seems to do brutality well. Refn’s better when he has some heart to work with instead of panache (the growing relationship between the boy and One-eye in Valhalla and the Driver and Irene in Drive were warm moments for him in a world of violence, so he can pull it off).

          You should look out for Paradise: Faith, a rather misguided critique on Catholicism. That’s my latest review and also playing at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It would be interesting to read your take on that.

  5. Yeah. I think the fact that this picture exists outside my sort of aesthetic preference and yet is still a picture about which I wish to converse, speaks to something of its power. Also, I actually don’t want to credit the filmmaker for meanings he did not intend but I do want to provide a sort of construct or a sort of lens through which his narrative might be understood by those who, perhaps, lacked the time or the energy to diffuse their own confusions. I would hope that, in any attempt, justice is done to the filmmaker (which is not to say one must tie him or herself to the intentions of the filmmaker but it is to say that one should distinguish between one’s own projections and the filmmaker which motivated them).

    I wouldn’t speak of Julian in the words that you do (as an “angry, clumsy wimp”) but I certainly agree with the direction of such comments. To that end, I don’t see him as a Christ-figure. I see him as one caught between two possibilities; as between moving in the direction of redemption or further alienation. I see the figures of Chang and the Mother as perhaps personifying each path (though, again, it’s a different imaging of God than in the New Testament. Perhaps it is more akin to the God of the Hebrew Bible, or the apocalyptic imagery of the New Testament?).

    Anyway, thanks for the conversation and for the pointing toward Paradise: Faith.



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