In his tenth feature film, Nicholas Winding Refn takes us to the very depths of hell. As Gosling himself said, "if 'Drive' is a dream, 'Only God Forgives' is a nightmare."
Their second collaboration after the 2011 neo-noir crime drama is a much more visually distinctive work of art. It sets the mood of the film like Dario Argento did with Suspiria back in 1977, drowning each shot in an entrancing neon glow, so the film's moments of carnage seem more highlighted than they usually are in more familiar cinema. The gore in this one is, however, more ‘in-your-face’ than it was in 'Drive'.
It's as if Refn is dangling a bloody, severed limb in front of your eyes while you're all tied up. The towering skyscrapers, glitzy roadways and twinkling emporiums of heartland L.A. are replaced by Bangkok's Muay Thai rings, vile brothels and disturbingly colour-rich karaoke clubs. Every random face on the streets feels like a masked agent of the underworld, and so, like the stoic and mostly apathetic-looking protagonist, you too feel estranged and scornfully antagonized, with a vexing itch to go home.
OGF has a guilt-driven, psychedelic journey at its core. One that challenges the foundations of religion and its ethos. Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a man who seeks to wield the power of God. Like The Driver, Gosling plays another tight-lipped and acutely-reserved criminal with a horrible past. As Refn's repeated visual references to Julian's hands suggest; he's done things he isn't proud of. Brutality seems to have always been a part of his life. As his mother (a nefarious Kristin Thomas) tells the Thai police in the final scenes about their malformed relationship and that he murdered his father with his own bare hands, you get a picture of his instability.
He’s a sinner who now seeks forgiveness. During the intimate scenes with his girlfriend, he never touches her. However, he does hallucinate it; So, you can tell that he’s afraid of himself and what he can do. His hands repeatedly remind him of his history with violence. Hence, his sexual frustrations force him to lash out only against random snickering men.
This is a man who seeks salvation but one who'd even fight a god to attain it.
Refn exploits his character's bludgeoned self-containment to make the film feel stuck on the edge of a mental breakdown. Hence, even with a narrative that takes its time, you feel the stone-cold intensity it holds.
When Julian's ruffian brother is killed, a gang war ensues leading to an endless bloodbath. He's torn between his quest for redemption and a path of vengeance he's forced to take by his mob-boss mother. Kristin Scott Thomas as Crystal is the Satanic figure in Julian's story. She's seductive, manipulative and has a sinister screen-presence, dominating Julian's limelight like the chronic authoritarian that she is. She definitely represents the ticking demonic voice at the back of Julian's head, persuading him to go berserk.
Refn drops hints of their twisted and suggestively sexual relationship, that in a way explains his drive to murder his father. The subtle implications of the Oedipus complex are prominent in their reunion sequence earlier on in the film, where an air of uneasiness fills the glaring red room. He's clearly overpowered and more soft-spoken than he ever is around the other characters, yet there's an aura of attraction around him.
The titular 'God' of the film, or rather his revered archangel, is of course, Chang (sternly played by Vithaya Pansringram). A retired cop, he dresses black and white throughout the whole film which symbolizes his extreme views of swift justice. He's like the invincible samurai of the city, taking the law into his own hands. Julian clearly sees him as a walking fantasy though. He appears in Julian's nightmarish hallucinations like an angelic figure roaming the alleys of hell for their draconian cleansing.
Their gloriously pulpy showdown ends with Julian laying no punches on the warrior. After a misguided attempt to kill off the whole family at Chang's house, Julian comes to his senses and finally understands that he must turn to Chang in guileless repentance, instead of attempting to seize his power.
The film's most cerebral sequence comes in the end though. After Crystal is killed, Julian cuts open her corpse's womb and places his hands inside. I feel this represents his voyage back to his place of acceptance. He must have been alienated even during his childhood, for his older brother was raised as the alpha male of the family. This is his ultimate homecoming. He doesn't have to be his mother’s personal bulldog anymore. The womb is the closest place to a home he probably ever had in life, and also the only place he probably ever felt the warmth and love of his mother.
Julian’s journey eventually ends with his big, silent moment of absolution. He meets Chang in the woods, and allows him to cut off his hands as a way of ethereal deliverance from the evils holding him down. By losing his hands, he now becomes whole again and has a chance to start fresh.
In conclusion, OGF is a piece of cinema that challenges its audience. It forces them to ponder and search for hidden meanings. Perhaps that’s why it didn't find commercial or critical success. Character studies like these are rare finds even with big names like Ryan Gosling. There’s a lot to savour here for fans of all things ‘cinema’. 4/5
Written By Shritan Verma
Edited By Sanyam Garg