Only God Forgives a very delicate, fragile movie. You might not think that, considering the level of graphic violence, but it is. My first viewing of this fever-dream was at the LA Film Festival in June, where a member of the LA Film Fest introduced the movie and told the audience that this was a different type of movie, try to let go and go along for the ride. For the next ninety minutes, I sat in my seat, completely stunned and virtually motionless. I sat with my eyes peeled open, allowing image after image, color after color, wash right over them. Scenes followed other scenes, characters made entrances and exits, and eventually, it all faded to black. For a minute, I wasn’t sure if God Only Forgives was a movie of a dream, or a dream I had, possibly a dream I had just shared with 808 strangers. After the screening, writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn held a Q&A. He said that he liked to think of his movies likes drugs, if Drive was like getting a bunch of really good coke and doing it all in one weekend, then Only God Forgives is like doing LSD. Not the kind that makes you want to run around and have sex, but the kind of LSD that makes you sit in a chair and want to become the chair. Refn admitted that he has never taken psychedelics, and neither have I, but at that moment, I could not have understood a director’s intentions more.
Set in Bangkok, Thailand, the plot of Only God Forgives revolves around a dark and violent underworld. It is an underworld that exists outside reality, somewhere in the landscape of myth. Chang, the character that plays the ‘God’ of the title (Vithaya Pansringarm) is also referred to as ‘The Angel of Vengeance’. He is not the God of the New Testament, a Christ who rebukes the idea of retribution, He is the vengeful and violent God of Abraham and Moses, with very little forgiveness to dole out, and a whole lot of retribution and justice, “And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand—“ Exodus 21:23-24. Only God Forgives could have easily been titled, Someday God is Going to Cut You Down.
In the heart of this underworld, are two brothers, Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling). Together they run a Muay Thai Boxing club that acts a front for a drug ring. The older brother, Billy, brutally rapes and kills a sixteen-year-old prostitute. The Father of the prostitute, Choi (Kovit Wattanakul), appeals to Chang (who is also a police officer) and is allowed to exact his revenge by killing Billy. Chang then cleaves one of Choi’s arms off, punishment for allowing his daughter to prostitute herself. Violence begets violence and Julian goes to settle the score with Choi, but when he finds out what Billy did to deserve his fate, he decides not to kill Choi. Julian’s mother, Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas in a chameleon like performance) comes to Bangkok to seek revenge for her son’s murder and is furious when she finds out that Julian has done nothing. Crystal is a cyclone of violence and foul language and the body count really starts to pile up.
I must admit that I was so absorbed by the movie, that I am not a hundred percent sure if I remember it all. The plot is so simple that I couldn’t help but fixate on characters, movements, colors, assigning ideas and symbols to them, symbols that might not even be there in the first place. I remember fragments, like snatches from a dream, unable to reconstruct the why and how of it all: a hit man wearing a death mask, Crystal denigrating a woman who never blinks, Julian in his impeccably tailored suit and bashed in face. Plenty happens in between these moments, and it does exactly what good plot is supposed to do, drive the story forward and reveal character. However, that is not the point of this movie. This movie is about color and shadow, movement and non-movement, sound and silence. Chocked full of ordinary objects, rendered in detail, allowing them to take on a transcendental quality. Silence, the loudest of all sounds, requiring your other senses to heighten and become more aware. The slower the movement, the more significant it becomes. I was reminded of a quote from Claude Debussy, “Music is the space between notes.” The languid camera moves, the precise framing, the way characters walk and sit, stiff, rigid, turgid like. An overhead shot of Julian clenching and then slowly opening his fist. Closed (Vengeance): tight and powerful, the erection. Open (Forgiveness): soft and inviting, the vagina. Symbols permeate every image, every layer of this symphony. Only God Forgives is less a movie and more an emotion yearning to be expressed the only way it can. In essence, it is pure cinema.
Far too often we watch movies with a critical eye, trying to deconstruct plots, analyze actions, and wonder, “Is this working? Does this make sense?” This can do wonders for the understanding of the work, but it can interfere with the experience of the work. There are times where I find myself watching a movie and trying to over-think this or that, trying to force this square peg into that round hole, and failing. With this attitude, I always fail. If I’m lucky enough, I can hear the words of Tyler Durden echo in my brain, “Just let go”. I do, and allow the movie to tell me what it is and is not. Those are the moments where illumination is possible. Something that is trying and aggravating suddenly transforms into something beautiful and illuminating. Let go and enjoy the ride.