July 24th, 2013 / 3:07 pm

25 Points: Only God Forgives

I’m wearing the same expression as Ryan Gosling there: I just saw Only God Forgives, director Nicolas Winding Refn’s followup to Drive. (If you’re in Chicago, it’s playing through Thursday, 8 August at the Music Box; the film is also apparently streaming online.) Actually, I was so impressed I went and saw it twice.

Anyone out there want to chat about it? I’ll post some initial thoughts after the jump. (Beware of serious spoilers, though: these points cover the entire film, and give away key plot points.)

[My capsule review for those who don’t want to read the rest: Of the five new films I’ve seen so far this year, Only God Forgives is easily the most compelling and my favorite. In second place is probably Iron Man 3, which I mostly enjoyed, but found nowhere near as interesting as this. Securely in last place is Star Trek Into Darkness.]

  1. A lot of people will despise this film because they’ll go in expecting Drive 2: Driven. And while both films share certain aesthetic concerns, Only God Forgives is not another sweet, fun, periodically violent movie like Drive. It is instead consistently and brutally violent, nightmarish, and challengingly abstract. In that regard, it’s more like the “black metal Viking film” that Refn made before Drive, Valhalla Rising. (I wasn’t surprised to learn that Refn wrote OGF before he made Drive.)
  2. I’ll reiterate that Only God Forgives is very violent movie. Refn refers to both Gaspar Noé and Alejandro Jodorowsky in the credits, which is apt; he’s making a companion piece to their films. David Lynch’s influence is also palpable, especially Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and Lost Highway. (Just like Drive, OGF is heavily allusive.)
  3. But I don’t think that the extremely unnerving violence is why so many people have disliked this one. Many movies are violent. What makes Only God Forgives so consternating is threefold.
  4. First, unlike with Drive, Only God Forgives is often spatially and temporally disorienting, which will no doubt annoy many people to no end. But Refn (who shot the film in scene order) has very deliberately built this disorientation into the film, and it is precisely these experiments with time and space that provide much of the film’s pleasure.
  5. The disorientation begins with the all-Thai opening credits, which reminded me of Tarantino’s nod to the Shaw Bros. at the opening of Kill Bill, as well as Jean-Luc Godard’s dedicating Breathless to Monogram Pictures.
  6. Actually, I was reminded of Breathless repeatedly throughout the movie. Refn, like Godard (and like Seijun Suzuki), is using a familiar gangster story as the basis for exploring various formal issues. As I’ve said elsewhere, if you want to make something radical, it can be a good idea to start with something familiar and deform that. (This is pure Russian Formalism—Refn gets it!)
  7. Some, however, will think the movie plotless, and its dialogue bad. That would be wrong. Refn has erected the bare minimum of plot and dialogue needed to motivate the movie and keep it going. For instance, the scene where Julian (Ryan Gosling) and Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) meet Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) for dinner, is simple to the point of being comical. But there is no need to make it more plausible. It very elegantly does precisely what it needs to in this film.
  8. I’ve read an earlier draft of the script (you can find it if you’re willing to stick your arm into the darker corners of the internet), which featured much more expository dialogue—explanations as to who or what the police office Chang is, and further details regarding Julian’s family’s business. And I can’t tell you how happy I am that Refn cut all of that out. In translating the film from script to screen, he removed a lot that was extraneous—not unlike how Rick Rubin helped Kanye West subtract elements from Yeezus.
  9. This reduction left Refn free to explore other issues, such as cinematic conventions for constructing time and space—not to mention more room for gorgeous shots of people walking slowly from one place to another, their footsteps echoing impossibly loudly. (Point Blank is another clear influence here.)
  10. Drive was occasionally dreamlike and fantastical, but it remained rooted in a plausible time and place. Only God Forgives lets go and, like Valhalla Rising, functions more as a dream (or a nightmare). The cinematographer, Larry Smith, also shot Eyes Wide Shut, which featured a delightfully fake-looking New York City. Only God Forgives brings the same lack of interest in verisimilitude to Bangkok.
  11. This delivers us to the second reason why I suspect people haven’t liked the film: the film’s interest in performance, and of being the subject of focused attention. Like Eyes Wide Shut, it features numerous scenes in which a character stands on display in front of an inscrutable crowd. The test of the character is how he or she responds to that attention—how he or she performs.
  12. For instance, watch the first time we meet Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). He walks down the alley, then turns to stride toward the hotel where Billy has raped and murdered the prostitute. He is first on display for us, walking toward us. Then, as he approaches the building, he becomes the object of the attention of other characters, who are silently sitting and standing there, bathed by blue and red police lights. But Chang’s stride never falters—he walks steadily, at his own pace, on display but without any reaction to so much attention. And this of course follows a scene where people are gathered to watch a Muay Thai boxing match. As well as several scenes where Billy observes and is observed by prostitutes.
  13. I remember thinking the first time I saw these scenes: “This whole movie is going to be variations on the strip club scene in Drive, where Gosling’s character threatened the thug with the bullet and the hammer, all while the motionless strippers impassively observed.” And I wasn’t wrong!
  14. For instance, in what is probably the most harrowing scene in the film, Chang tortures an ex-pat goon in front of his entertainers and others. The film even comments on this concept, as one of the police officers instructs all present: “Remember, girls, whatever happens, keep your eyes closed. And you men…take a good look.” The film well understands what the viewer is feeling: I want to watch, but I don’t want to watch, but I want to watch. (We even get a nod toward one of cinema’s earliest shock moments: Buñuel and Dalí’s Un chien andalou.)
  15. These scenes of concentrated performance are more often than not the scenes where Refn most distorts time and space. For instance, pay attention to the second sex scene between Julian and Mai, when Julian gets up and reaches through the beaded curtain to touch her. Refn in facts cuts between two different times: in one of them, Julian remains seated on the couch, wearing a black t-shirt; in another, he gets up and touches Mai while wearing a white t-shirt. Two different scenes are being conflated (which might suggest that one—the one where Julian actually does something!—is not really happening). Complicating things further is that Refn then introduces another space: he crosscuts Julian and Mai with shots of Crystal, who is seated on a couch and leering. The montage implies that she’s watching Julian and Mai—but Refn then reveals that Crystal is watching a different sexual performance, featuring muscular young men in thongs.
  16. Ever since Lev Kuleshov—hell, ever since Edwin S. Porter—cinema’s artists have been exploring the ways that they can construct time and space through montage. In other words, much of the content of Only God Forgives is cinema itself—surely a worthy enough subject for a film?
  17. Many won’t think so, and as a result, they will think the movie empty, or valueless. J.R. Jones, for instance, writing in the Chicago Reader, complains in his review that the film’s “fascination with extreme gore never amounts to more than a fetish, and there’s none of the deft characterization that made [Refn’s] revered Pusher trilogy and British biopic Bronson so engaging.” How to respond to such a shallow reading?
  18. For starters, the fetishism that Jones so quickly dismisses comprises the very heart of Only God Forgives, which is fascinated with fetishes (surely another worthy subject for the cinema?). Understanding and accepting this proves crucial to grasping the deft characterization so thoroughly on display, but that Jones has not eyes to see. The film’s central narrative is Julian’s growing fascination with Chang, and the power that that supernatural force of a man embodies—literally embodies, in his all-powerful right sword arm. Julian initially thinks himself powerful, the owner of a boxing arena and school, but the film steadily dispels him of that illusion. Note, for instance, the film’s contrasting of Julian with the Muay Thai statue, very early on. Julian’s attempt to form fists proves feeble. Later, during Julian’s fight with Chang, Refn match cuts between Chang and the Muay Thai statue, demonstrating who really possesses that power.
  19. Once you see this aspect of the film, you see that it’s stuffed with the “deft characterization” that Jones desires. The first sex scene between Julian and Mai, for instance, provides numerous clues to Julian’s psychology. Mai ties to him to a chair and proceeds to masturbate as he observes. Julian then senses the presence of Chang and gets up (he has magically become untied) to explore blood-red corridors until he arrives before a door as ominously black as any door in a David Lynch film. (Actually, an older precedent can be found in the hallway scene in the cosmetics factory in Marc Robson and Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim, as well as in the mirror that leads between worlds in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée.) Julian tentatively reaches his right arm into the void, only to have it get lopped off by Chang just as Mai reaches orgasm. (There’s a free term paper on vagina dentata waiting to be written there.)
  20. Julian craves power, and sexual satisfaction, but he fears humiliation—but he also craves humiliation. These issues are inextricably intertwined for him; note how his mother’s humiliations of him are always sexual. Above all else, Julian (who is impotent?) craves potence, and the film details his discovery and exploration of a power greater than his own.
  21. This gets to the third reason why this film will probably displease many viewers: Gosling is playing the exact opposite of the strong silent type he portrayed in Drive. Julian is instead a weak silent man—a coward and a momma’s boy who’s only reward is betrayal and abuse—and who nonetheless keeps coming back for more! (Did Guy Maddin direct this?)
  22. Note how, after Julian dons the three-piece suit for his dinner date with his mother, he keeps it on for the rest of the film. (Mai, of course, gets out right away, and later abandons Julian, after he’s been thoroughly beaten by Chang.) Note also how Julian’s various black and white outfits are variations on Chang’s unchanging black-and-white suit, while everyone else wears reds and blues and yellows.
  23. Most importantly, note how Julian ultimately realizes and accepts that the only thing that will satisfy him is humiliation and, eventually, castration at the hands of a foreigner. In other words, Julian finds the fulfillment he’s looking for. The film’s ending is actually a happy one!
  24. There’s your engaging and deft characterization, J.R. Jones—though I doubt you’ll enjoy it.
  25. (Has anyone out there read Paul Bowles’s “A Distant Episode“?)

Well, I’ll no doubt have more to say about the movie later, but for now…what are your own thoughts?

Related: An inventory of all my writing on cinema

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Richard Thomas

      brilliant, adam. going to try to make my way to the Music Box tomorrow to catch this.

  2. A D Jameson

      Sweet! Let me know what you think!

  3. An inventory of all my writing on cinema | A D Jameson's Blahg

      […] Only God Forgives […]

  4. Mark Thomas Stevenson

      **mini-dissertation alert**

      I’m a little shocked (naively-so, perhaps) at the generally negative critical reaction to this. I think the ideas are almost just on the side of too-pushed imagery-wise – but then, even saying that, largely there’s a meta-performative aspect to the entire film, and the actors within it. Loved what you said about ‘the stage’. There are so many stages (literal / boxing rings / displays) going on here – of course the whole mother/son deal, the tactile fetish stuff, the hands the hands the hands (feel like this would be a nightmare for someone with a twitchy OCD about hands and fingers). Massively agree with what you said about Gosling’s malignancy (Malignancy (from Latin male “badly” + -gnus “born”) cf. “There was something wrong with you…”) throughout the film – not just his dialogue, but the plain impotency all around him (a statue of a fighter is still just a statue after all), his outright pathetic figure at times, and very much the submissive fetishisation running through this. This thought of people being aggressors or being the aggressee – Chang, I would say, in some ways, is almost ‘worse’ than Gosling’s character, even though you can justify him as a vigilante or justice-seeker he seems to have no real remorse for his victims, and definitely Julian’s brother is a total aggressor, but he is still treated better, even excused for his shitty behavior because he’s ‘earned it’ somehow – whereas Julian is not ‘his own man’, and so not even in the conversation, so to speak. Even the way I found myself reacting to the violence – mostly it was ‘ok’, not too awful, some of it a little gross, etc., but I found myself reacting more deeply to the fistfight near the end.. thinking about weapons, about methods of violence upon others (does Julian land a single punch in this film? how many actual unmediated fistfights are there?), about the ‘performative’ methods of violence vs. just fucking punching someone. The brutal reality of that, in this film, was similar to how I remember even my most non-reading-into-films friends noticing Fight Club’s fight scenes (the dull thud, the wet slap) – except here I feel it’s x10 because of Julian’s (and what’s more – Gosling’s) crapiness. After all, he trains near-children to box, not men, so how good could he really be against Chang? What did we expect? There’s a lot more I’m thinking about, but this is a comment after all, so I’ll leave it there for now heh …

  5. A D Jameson

      Thanks for all of that, Mark!

      Julian never lands a blow on Chang. He does slap around the one patron in the bar, who seems to be criticizing Mai’s singing? After smashing the whiskey glass into his face. Although it’s not clear whether that really happens, or is a fantasy. He also chokes Mai, after the dinner.

      The way power works in this movie is worth tracing out. Crystal is a tyrant, and abuses Julian mercilessly—but see how she completely folds in front of Chang, when he comes for her. And then Julian can only dare do what he really wants after she’s dead.

  6. mimi

      didn;t read, but i think i know now what i;m doing this weeknd

  7. Philip Durkin

      I have not seen the film yet, but your description has me
      very excited. Refn’s work was probably my favorite film of 2011, unless you
      count Reeve’s Let Me In, which has been my favorite film for every year since
      2010. It sounds like Refn is capitalizing on Drive’s success to make more art.
      A delightfully fake looking New York? Really? You should recount for your
      readers, here, the historical lineage of Drive from Boorman’s Point Blank. Refn
      really seems committed to a coherent aesthetic objective with this project if
      both films share that Boorman DNA. This is certain to confound people who came into it looking for the new Die Hard franchise.

      As long as I’m on the subject of those people…

      One morsel that stood out in your analysis was your summation
      of J.R. Jones’ impersonation of “what he imagines a film critic sounds like.”
      We’ve talked about this a little bit. It appears to me that much of what is
      ostensibly intended as film criticism today is actually something else.
      Something non-criticism.

      The popular imagination at some point began to denominate
      all popular discussion of film into certain homilies. Homilies intended to
      allow people like Oprah Winfrey to feel like she was participating in an important
      conversation about art, without needing to do all the hard, messy work of… you
      know… engaging art. Instead these people are preforming a kind of script for
      cultural capital. I think intelligent people would recognize the homilies from
      the script I’m talking about.

      “Plot and characterization.” “Emotional believability.” “The
      triumph of the human spirit.”

      I don’t know what any of these things mean. Yet they are
      deployed as “criticism” with such frequency that they have become ubiquitous. A
      real metric that I can use to judge the artistic merit of “Night and Fog” for
      instance, or “Cook-Thief,” is Sacha Vierny’s lighting design. I care fuck-all about
      characterization. More importantly, I don’t acknowledge that “characterization”
      is even a real thing. At least not the characterization J.R. is bleating about.
      I think it’s a nonsense word, completely disconnected from any metric of
      artistic production we could analyze, that he uses when he “plays the role” of
      critic. There seems to be a cast of thousands reading from the same script.

      This peculiar state of criticism really requires some
      attention. These pretend-critic personalities dominate much of the media, and
      continue to deform the conversation to the point of uselessness. And it’s not
      just cinema that suffers this deformity. The pretend-critic is situated quite
      comfortably within fiction and architecture.

  8. Mark Thomas Stevenson

      Yeah, definitely, re the seamless ‘imagined’ sequences (picking up on the white shirt/black shirt thing, and the intercuts of Crystal too). I really love how Julian ‘sees’ Chang a long time before he actually meets him; Chang only appears to him in his dreams, or as visual representation of something Julian fears/wants (for him, fear and want seem to go ahem ‘hand in hand’), and so when the ‘real’ Chang is actually in front of him, there’s a sense of daddy lion crossing paths with baby lion, almost (and the way Chang merely shrugs Julian off is slight and well done)..

  9. Tremayne Boudreaux

      Excellent write-up, very glad to see a discussion on this. I was absolutely floored and bewildered after stepping out of the theater. The visuals and sound design and music (Cliff Martinez has outdone himself on this one) melded together to make the experience feel like ‘cinema’, which is more than I can say for most other 2013 films to date.

      The negative reviews and quickness to pile-on against OGF have me wondering if many critics caught the movie on-demand rather than in the theater. It builds hypnotic rhythms that any minor distraction could easily destroy, maybe giving the overt symbolism the appearance of being ridiculously over-the-top. To me, the conspicuous mythology and themes are kind of the point in Refn’s films.

      Completely agree with the influences on display in Lynch, Gaspar Noe, & Jodorowsky– another filmmaker I was reminded of is Takashi Miike, particularly in the slightly inhuman and austere acting, and of course the modern Japanese horror influence as well.

  10. Mark Thomas Stevenson

      Oh man, yeah, the music is… gosh. I’ve been talking to a few friends and they also didn’t like it – mostly complaints of ’empty’ and ‘meandering’, which I find stunningly odd, I was hypnotised, for sure. Think you;re spot-on there with the mistaking of overt symbolism – I feel like people were too quick to fix upon some kind of heavy narrative, maybe applied ideas that miss the more subtle, snaky themes going on underneath. “Conspicuous mythology” – totally.

  11. A D Jameson

      Thanks! Yes, it is pure cinema. And, yeah, Miike, I thought a few times of Izo, though of course the films are also very different.

  12. A D Jameson

      Anyone who calls this film “empty” simply isn’t watching. Sure, it doesn’t feature a lot of the usual stuff that movies do—and thank god for that! And I can understand if people don’t like what’s up on the screen, but the screen ain’t empty.

  13. A D Jameson

      Hey Philip,

      It’s good to see you here! Lots in your comment to ponder…

      Regarding Jones, he’s more a reviewer than a critic, I think, and as such his job is to tell the average person whether or not they will like the movie. (I’m not defending this as a line of work, mind you.) His unwillingness to challenge either his readers or himself makes me miss Roger Ebert all the more.

      “Plot and characterization.” “Emotional believability.” “The triumph of the human spirit.”

      Characters can exist in films and I am interested in anything that can exist in films. But the problem is that when Jones writes “characterization,” he means only one thing, or a very narrow range of things. And he approves only of movies that then operate in that manner. In other words, he would limit cinema’s artistic potential.

      That’s because, like many people out there, Jones reads films symptomatically: he looks only for the presence or absence of certain things that he considers worthwhile. When he doesn’t see them, he pronounces the film empty or valueless, and moves on. And I can’t stress how much this is entirely the wrong way to view art, which must always be engaged with on its own terms. Approving/dismissing artworks based on whether they test positive/negative for certain features may at times make a certain political sense (e.g., it’s worth noting if no Hollywood movie passes, say, the Bechdel Test), but that has nothing to do with art. Artistic value cannot be political value*, in the same way it cannot be capitalist value.

      *This isn’t to say that art is not political. It most certainly is. But it has its own politics, which are predicated first and foremost on its being art. In other words, artistic value is alternative to the values of capitalism and politics.

      Speaking of which:

      It sounds like Refn is capitalizing on Drive’s success to make more art.

      Absolutely. Lee Marvin used his popularity in the late 1960s to hire John Boorman to come to Hollywood and make Point Blank, an abstract action movie in the style of Antonioni and the French New Wave. (It of course went on to be one of the most influential action films ever made; Tarantino and Soderbergh are practically unimaginable without it). What’s important to note here is that Marvin used his clout to shield Boorman from the Hollywood money folk.

      Today, Ryan Gosling’s doing the same thing for Nicolas Winding Refn. (See here and here.) As Refn puts it in that second article:

      That was what was so good about Ryan and I. He would protect me. He was my hero. As a person he was my hero. He was also, as my lead actor, a hero. And that of course that created a very strong bond between us, because it’s a very emotional way to work. It’s similar to when John Boorman made Point Blank. Lee Marvin insisted on John Boorman coming from England to do kPoint Blankk. Or with Steve McQueen wanting Peter Yates to do Bullitt.

      Gosling and Refn really get it. As has been reported variously elsewhere, Drive was originally slated to be a big-budget Hugh Jackman picture. Gosling got control over it and brought in Refn, and they made it for $15 million. That’s another way in which they shielded themselves from capitalist pressure, and were free to make art.

      I highly doubt they’ve read it, but Gosling and Refn understand very well many of the points Nicholas Brown made in his article “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Real Subsumption under Capital.” Today’s artist needs to shield him or herself from the expectation that art’s primary value is capitalist. Genre is one way to do that. Having a popular actor run interference for you is another.

      A delightfully fake looking New York?

      That’s in Eyes Wide Shut; sorry if it wasn’t clear. (I revised the line a few times, thinking it convoluted, and never got it quite satisfactory.) But the Bangkok in Only God Forgives is even more fake-looking.

      Incidentally, Only God Forgives is actually streaming through iTunes, so maybe we can watch it when I see you next week? A

  14. hunbao520


  15. Mike Kleine

      Thank you thank you thank you! I have been holding off on watching this film (due mostly to real-life commitments and time constraints) but after having read this well-thought out analysis, I simply cannot wait to dive into this spectacle of a film. Again, thank you Adam, AND I still am waiting and cannot wait any longer to read that part 3…

  16. A D Jameson

      Thanks! And I was taking something of a break from blogging, but I will get back to work on part 3…

  17. Only God Forgives ————– Extreme & Total Sexism | HTMLGIANT

      […] God Forgives, as A.D. Jameson’s excellent 25-Point Post claims, is a great pleasure to watch and to think and talk about. And in this post (which owes much […]

  18. Reading what’s extraneous | HTMLGIANT

      […] course that knowledge might be wrong. Witness the recent film Only God Forgives. In my 25 Points review of that film, I spent some time identifying why I thought so many critics and viewers were unhappy with the […]

  19. 25 Pints: The World’s End | HTMLGIANT

      […] Only God Forgives (a masterpiece) […]

  20. Michael T.

      Brilliant analysis, Mr. Jameson, though it seems I’m a bit late to the party. I noted some Oedipal elements running throughout the film, which I found rather interesting. This is probably off-topic, but is there any particular edition of “Film Art” you would recommend? I’d certainly like to be able to look at films like this from a formalists’s perspective.

  21. A D Jameson

      Thanks! And I’d love to hear your thoughts, here or elsewhere.

      Re: Film Art, there are substantial differences between different editions, but I recommend starting with the most recent one. Or whichever one you can most easily find—one just has to dive in:)

      Bordwell and Thompson’s blog is also well worth following.

  22. Michael T.

      Thanks for responding.

      I’ve been following their blog for a while now–those two write some truly insightful articles.

      I don’t know if I have much more to say about OGF that hasn’t been said already. (Maybe it was just me, but I thought I saw some bats flying around when Julian first observes his hands. I dunno, it reminded me of how much better a film TDKR could be if it’d been as daring as this.)

      One interesting thing I noticed was that even though Chang summons a sword from his back, we never see this sword in the shots Refn shows us of his back. This is probably further evidence of Chang’s supernatural qualities, given the film’s fantasy setting.

      I suppose the Oedipal stuff is rather evident (the gouging of Byron’s eyes, Julian’s sexual (?) relations with his mother and murdering of father).

      Anyway, I’m sure you have more interesting things to say about the film than I do :)

  23. A D Jameson

      I also like Chang’s sword, and how mystical it is. I’ve been trying to think of OGF as a superhero film, mainly because I’ve been writing a lot as of late of superhero films. Doesn’t Thor’s hammer disappear when he doesn’t need it? Into “hammer space,” if I recall. And I believe Hanuman’s dagger similarly disappears, becoming a jewel pinned to his chest.

  24. Michael T.

      That’s a very interesting thought, although I think the concept of “hammer space” has been used in some rather cartoonish fashions in pop culture, especially video games (If I recall, it’s nodded to when Ramona pulls out a hammer from her purse in “Scott Pilgrim”).

      I can definitely see OGF as a superhero film, although it’s a very different superhero film, I would imagine. Rather than center the story on the “hero” (Chang), the film focuses on the criminal — Julian. After all, it is Chang who brings Julian to redemption in the end. I guess it’s also fitting to note that Jodorowsky himself wrote a few comic books, which might or might not have had an influence on Refn.

      By the way, good luck on the geek cinema book, or whatever it is you’re writing. Looking forward to it.

  25. My favorite films of 2013 so far & still in progress | HTMLGIANT

      […] Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn) […]