Nicholas Winding Refn paired up with Ryan Gosling for the cult hit Drive in 2011. They return with the dark lights of Bangkok, where Julian (Gosling) runs a Muay Thai fight club as a front for his drug smuggling operation. His mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives to claim Julian’s brother’s body, after he’s murdered in retaliation for beating a prostitute to death. But Crystal isn’t on a mission of mercy and grief; she’s a criminal in her own right, and she expects that Julian will avenge his brother’s death, even if he deserved it. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game of violence, murder, and moodiness that we’ve come to expect from Refn. Is it enough to draw you in?
The straw stirring the drink is Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who is himself adept in the art of Muay Thai, and uses a kitanna to inflict punishment, either amputations or execution, on those he deems guilty, like an angel of death. We literally don’t see Chang arrest anyone, as he’s too busy serving as judge, jury, and executioner. Chang and Julian are both nearly flat characters: the depth that they have pushed their emotions to has rendered them blunt instruments of destruction. Whether it’s justice or not is left primarily in the mind of the audience, as Julian must decide how to balance his own internal sense of silent morality with the push and pull of Crystal and Chang.
We’re not sure what to believe with what we’re seeing or what we’re told. Julian obviously has some developmental issues, and some substance implies he feels a need to get back into his mother’s womb (metaphorically). He’s the result of his upbringing (nurture) but is it his nature, too? Does he change over the course of the film, or is it merely a steady domino effect of violence on violence on violence that leads him to where he ends up? Can anyone break the cycle or is the destiny already determined? Does Julian even want to change?
Only God Forgives is stylized, in the way that Drive was made more profound by the way it was delivered. But the questions about morality and violence are left more open-ended, to the point that we don’t exactly know what we saw. Julian seems lifeless and controllable, but what he won’t do ultimately seems to define him… even if the consequences are the same. So, is that the point? That the god figure, the vengeance, destroys no matter what? Or is redemption possible?
I’ll admit, the view of God isn’t one that I share, but it’s always interesting to see in cinema how someone does. Or how someone would convey their view of God through their work. Is your God vengeful? Or gracious? Can God be both? And what do our lives, and how we act, have to do with God; can we reflect God or not?
I don’t think Only God Forgives can affect what you believe, but it might reflect what you believe back at you.