Only God Forgives: Storytelling at Its Best

Warning: this article contains many spoilers including the end of the movie.

“Advertising visuals”, “characters too simple”, “scenario poorly written”… I can’t count the negative reviews I have read about Only God Forgives, latest movie from Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive). Something didn’t go as planned with this new movie: it wasn’t the one we were waiting for, not after the “hipster” piece Drive. However, while leaving the theater, I couldn’t help but feel transcended. What happened in that movie theater that gave me the urge to prove the critics wrong?

First things first, what gave birth to the movie: the story. If you listen to the critics, the story of Only God Forgives is either too simple or incomprehensible. It would be too easy to blame the viewers’ too sharp or too weak intellect. The difficulty that some experienced understanding the movie simply comes from the mise en scène itself. But I’ll explain it later.

At First Glance, a Classic Gangster Movie

The synopsis: Julian (Ryan Gosling) is an American dealer living in Bangkok as an expatriate, where he runs a Thai boxing club in order to hide his illegal trafficking. His brother, Billy (Tom Burke), a disturbed and psychotic man, rapes and kills a sixteen-year-old prostitute. This is where the main antagonist shows up: the Angel of Death (Vithaya Pansringarm), a retired policeman who applies his own justice in the streets of Bangkok. The Angel of Death forces the prostitute’s father to kill Billy before cutting his hand off for having allowed his daughter to sell her body. Julian finds the prostitute’s father to avenge his brother’s death, but he understands that the man is not the person truly responsible for it and that it’s another man — the Angel of Death — that he has to find. Julian and Billy’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas, mind-blowing) leaves America and comes to Bangkok to ask her son to find Billy’s assassins. Seeing the inaction of Julian, she enters into an agreement with Byron (Byron Gibson), a drug leader in Bangkok: he has to murder the Angel of Death in exchange for a large supply of cocaine. Byron’s assassins fail to kill the Angel, and from this moment the family’s descent into hell begins under the Angel of Death’s relentless ire…

The Angel of Death and his favorite toy.

Until then, you could think it’s a classic gangster movie. It’s not, and the first reason for it is Julian’s very psychology, far from the confident gangster Hollywood has accustomed us to: Julian’s character does not escape the theme of redemption, but his own quest is more personal, he is uncommunicative, anxious and uncertain, refusing to act because he feels he wouldn’t do the right choice.

Julian Is Looking For a God

Julian maintains a relationship with a classy prostitute, Mai (Ratha Phongam), and seems to have sophisticated tastes, as we see in the scene in which Mai slowly attaches him to his chair before masturbating in front of him, but Julian never touches Mai sexually, except in his hallucinations: he holds back, as if he was afraid of doing things wrong.

You have to wait for the dinner scene with Mai, Julian and his mother Crystal to start understanding his restraint: Crystal, harsh and vulgar, clearly insinuates that she had an incestuous relationship with Billy. She thinks that Julian has always been jealous of his brother, almost accusing him of not wanting to avenge him, although the truth is that his perverted relationship with his mother weakened him.

But the true reason Julian is afraid is only explained in the confrontation scene between the Angel and Crystal in her hotel suite: Julian killed his own father with his bare hands, for a reason we’ll never know. This is the meaning of Julian’s visions, particularly the one in which he sees his hands covered with blood in his bathroom, his passed actions haunt him because he keeps a slight bit of moral without knowing how to manage it. He is not seeking forgiveness for an action he would define undoubtedly bad, but instead is seeking a meaning to the goodness he has in himself but which is crushed by his irrational violence. He is seeking the balance he’s never had, a way of conduct — a religion. A god.

This is what the Angel of Death really stands for. The first time Julian hears about him, the man who killed Billy explains him that the Angel has cut off his hand and therefore he has already paid for his crimes. This revelation strikes Julian: a man makes people pay for their crimes in the streets of Bangkok and chooses the appropriate sentence himself. It troubles Julian who then seeks for this man, wanting to challenge both his righteousness and invulnerability. Starting from this moment, Julian has found his religion, the godlike man who could dictate his future behavior, and that’s why, at the end of the movie, after the Angel has killed Crystal, Julian offers him both his arms to be cut off, symbolically leaving behind him his father’s death instruments and preventing himself from perpetuating the violence within him.

“Ladies Close Your Eyes”

And that’s it for Only God Forgives’ story: a cold, merciless polar that explores the limits of psychological atrocity. However, the reviews against the movie were not only criticizing its characters and scenario, but also its highly stylized mise en scène, its very slow rhythm and heavy atmosphere and its stark shots.

It’s not easy apprehending the idea behind that mise en scène, yet it comes from a very well-known storytelling principle: opposition. If you look at Only God Forgives’ Bangkok, you will see an extremely severe universe where no one is allowed to make any mistake, either one is a criminal, a policeman or a simple civilian. In this universe, civilians are obedient — and thereby uninteresting: they are part of the set, literally a human mural. The scene in which the Angel orders Byron’s cabaret women to close their eyes so that he can torture Byron perfectly illustrates this picture of civilians: less than secondary characters, they must stay absolutely mechanical; the cabaret women close their eyes without saying a word and do not budge during the whole torture scene, although the screams should be unbearable. But this is the very aesthetic Refn chose for his movie’s background: calm and mechanical obedience, a clockwork universe that doesn’t look like ours, supported by a strong, static camera.

This choice is anything but trivial, it shows the director’s intention to highlight the disruptive characters in this universe, the ones that do not obey, starting with criminals and mostly Julian of course, but also the man who disrupts the disruptive, the man who coldly stands and wages war against the crime: the Angel of Death himself. Therefore we have two strong oppositions: the first one (stable background versus disruptive characters) aims at highlighting the main characters’ own will; the second opposition (within the disruptive characters, between the Angel and the criminals) shows both the Angel of Death’s almost omnipotence and Julian’s quest for faith.

[Only God Forgives] is based on real emotions, but set in a heightened reality. It’s a fairy tale.” — Nicolas Winding Refn

Exaggerating two kinds of opposition that would actually feel quite typical in any other movie, Refn gives us a true lesson in cinema while succeeding in creating an atypical foreground opposition: his movie is less about an agent of equilibrium crushing an undesirable agent of chaos than it is about an agent of chaos eager to find his balance. It’s like a classic tale rewritten for adults. Refn says it himself: Only God Forgives is a fairy tale. Of course, the fairies are missing, but the idea is still there: showing true emotions which the characters strengthen, in a world not made for these emotions. The director plays with strong oppositions so that he can keep only what he thinks matters, like in a tale.

“Wanna fight?”

Certainly this is not an easy movie to get into. It is not the movie you would want to watch in the evening before going to sleep. It is one of these rare films that ask us to make a real effort. Only God Forgives shows instead of explaining, and that is its strength: it wants you to leave your seat behind and dive in this overpowering and claustrophobic universe so that, in the end, you feel exhausted but satisfied, proud to have found the simple truth hidden beyond that massive mise en scène. Refn delivers an impressive and styled piece of art that is as new as it is timeless. Only God Forgives is not the displaced pride of a declining director; it is the accomplished ambition of a visionary.

I want to thank Armand Grillet for his support during the writing of this article and his mastery of image research.

Note: I am a young French amateur writer, so if you find any mistake, I would really like to improve this article with your feedback!