Only God Forgives (2013): An Obsession With Revenge

An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind

Nicholas Winding Refn’s most recent collaboration with Ryan Gosling has already made a bit of a name for itself. At Cannes this year, the sound of cinema chairs thudding back into the upright position could be heard throughout the auditorium, as members of the audience walked out of the screening. Across the board, from newspaper reviews to popular opinion on tumblr, there’s a consensus that this time Refn has taken the violence too far.

I was blown away by 2011’s offering Drive; any film that places Ryan Gosling front and centre, and then marries that with an outstanding soundtrack, fast cars and amazing cinematography, is alright by me. So I was pretty excited in the run up to Only God Forgives, and the expectancy was only heightened when the promo posters started to be released earlier in the year. The warnings of violence, I also have to admit, did nothing to dampen my intrigue. 

The film explores the lives of criminal US expatriates who’ve relocated to Bangkok. Brothers Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Gosling) run their own fight club, dealing drugs on the side. From the outset it’s pretty established that this is as seedy an environment as you’re likely to get anywhere in the world, made only seedier by the two brother’s vices. 

The action kicks up a notch when Billy rapes and kills a sixteen year old girl. For the short amount of time that Burke’s character is on screen, he exudes the most perverse and darkest of traits. Your skin crawls as you see him eyeing up the girl that will become his victim, and as he sits in the motel room, blood blended into the red of his shirt and the neon hue of the lights casting strange shadows, it becomes clear that this is going to be a film about vengeance. As the father of the murdered girl beats Billy to death, so much so that the top half of his head disappears, an obsession with an-eye-for-an-eye becomes the mantra behind which each character hides. 

Refn’s Angel of Vengeance comes in the form of Chang, masterfully played by Vithaya Pansringarm. A Bangkok policeman, he has taken it upon his shoulders to rid this city of its scum and degradation. Wielding a samurai sword, Chang seeks out the filth of Bangkok, using his weapon as a means by which to dispose of those he considers past saving, and as a lesson to those he feels need to be taught. 

But for me, the film was one ruled by the two women on screen. Rhatha Phongam’s portrayal of Thai whore Mai was delicate and pure. In a world that makes even the viewer feel unclean, this “cum-dumpster” as one character calls her, offers the truest moments of normal human emotion. Asked by Julian to pretend to be his girlfriend for a dinner with his mother, she watches these damaged individuals spew out loathing. For her, in a role considered by history and many parts of society as the lowest of the low, these Americans are the ones who are lost and without hope, and it’s only her pure form that reaches the end of the film unbroken. 

Grabbing every moment of screen time given to her is Kristin Scott Thomas as the mother hen, Crystal. The minute she starts to speak, you understand why her children are so fucked up. Like some nightmarish reincarnation of Barbie, she stands on balconies outside penthouse suites, dragging on her fags and demanding why the heads of the murderers of her first-born son have not been brought to her on a platter. As Julian explains, Billy did a lot to deserve his violent end, a fact that Crystal shrugs off with a “he probably had his reasons”. 

The oedipal themes running through Only God Forgives were just as damaging for the viewer, if not more so, than any of the scenes of violence.  The long held stares between mother and son, her stroking of his arm or the tortuous scene where Crystal explains that the reason Julian and Billy never really got on is because Billy’s cock was far bigger than his, is enough to make any audience member squirm. We’ve seen Julian and Mai getting intimate with each other throughout the film, namely a lot of hand going up skirt kind of shots. In one of the final scenes, as Crystal lies dead on the floor, Julian decides to slice open her abdomen and then proceeds to very slowly place his hand in her stomach. The parallel between the two actions was truly toe curling. 

For all the shtick this film has received, I’ve seen far worse released recently, and lauded by critics a lot more. Gosling has been criticised for his performance, but I enjoyed seeing him a role that firstly had most of his face smashed up for half of it so I had no excuse to get distracted (although it did still happen) and one that left his character’s persona for the most part  ambiguous. 

Whilst it isn’t something I’ll be sitting down to watch again anytime soon, there are only so many times a woman can see a man be stuck to a chair with hair pins through his arms and legs, I was pleasantly surprised. The role of women throughout the film was always intriguing, and nothing in any of the actor’s performances can be described as obvious or ordinary. Another triumph for Refn, and one that only leaves me wanting more.

Illustration by Tamara-Jade Kaz