Only God Forgives is a film that seems to garner much hate and even more misinterpretation – I’m thinking of a specific high viewership review site that, for this film, does not even attempt an interpretation and instead takes the director’s single comment about the movie being about violence and revenge and refuses to analyze the film at any deeper level. Yes, one can find themes of retribution, of violence, of sexual desire, etc. etc., and if that was all there was, then sure, the film would not have succeeded in any meaningful way. But these are surface-level themes that are utterly apparent without having to think too deeply. Looking beneath the surface, the film is a visual poem exploring the origins of evil – how evil is forced upon a colonized or fetishized civilization which in turn creates the necessity of a new sort of evil, and how these acts of violence are passed down. This Only God Forgives review/analysis will contain minor SPOILERS.
The film opens with a group of American drug dealers running a boxing ring in Thailand. The older brother, Billy, sets out to seek an underaged prostitute. When he finds one, he rapes and kills her, and is subsequently beaten to death by the girl’s father under the approval of the police. The police Lieutenant, Chang, then takes the father out and cuts off an arm, hoping to imprint the memory on him further so he will better protect his other daughters. When these drug dealer’s mother comes to Thailand to see the body of her killed son, she seeks vengeance on all those who participated in the murder.
Of course, vengeance, violence, and sex can all be explored through these scenes, but pay attention to the race of the characters. A white man has come to Thailand and seeks to exploit their laws to his own perverted benefit. In his old country, this act would have been unfathomable or at least not so blatantly sought. However, in this new country that he sees as foreign, exotic, and sexually deviant, it seems like an act that is not only desired, but sanctioned or gifted onto him. This exploitation of the people in this foreign country, whether it be Thailand in the movie or some allegorical version of any colonized and fetishized nation, leads to what we see in Chang – the almost equally evil and corrupt power which, while not excusable, comes almost out of a necessity to fight back against that which has invaded them.
The “invaders” cannot seem to handle this rebellion. They somehow see themselves as purveyors of good – that the sort of death they bring alongside them has some higher reason behind it, and that the force set out against them is the true evil. This is when Crystal, the mother, comes to Thailand. It is she who has bred the original evil into the two brothers. The parent to the child, the elders to the new generation, or those with power unto those without, are the other means by which the film explores the origins of evil. We see how easily Billy and Julian (Gosling’s character) could have been easily corrupted by her to sell drugs and execute violent acts. We see a scene where Chang is about to execute his hitman and just before he reaches his arm behind the opposite shoulder to draw his blade, a child who is watching performs the same movement in an almost preordained fashion. The child knows what will happen and he is simply acting on recognized, reflexive impulse. It is imprinted on Julian’s mind just as it is imprinted on the child’s. It is a simple way of life that is not to be questioned.
Thought, there are some who may question the origins of this evil: why it is inside them, why it is pervasive in all they see. Julian represents this moral questioning. He holds an understanding of forgiveness and understanding that those around him don’t seem to have. He, while not having a moral high ground, has limits as to what he will allow to happen. He clearly struggles with discovering where this violence and hate in him stems. It is clear to the viewer it is from his mother, but she represents far more than motherhood. She is the parent, the home, the native country, the culture. And in his final scene with her, when he reaches into her belly, he is reaching for the womb – that which nourished him and taught him how to hate. He seeks these original memories and original sins.
One can look at these themes and pin them to reality in various ways. Look at the war-torn Middle East – how the US intervention brought out groups such as ISIS when nothing else could be done. Or at the cartels in Latin America – where our involvement in the drug trade and future restriction led to the formation of some of the most brutal gangs on Earth. And now, in these areas, children who are witness to the violent and evil acts will mimic and expect them to go unchanged. There may be the occasional person, like Julian, who understands the wrong they or their country has caused, but for the other side, already beaten down, raped, bombed, or massacred, the vengeance and desensitization to violence may already be set too deep.
Only God Forgives, along with the ideas within the film, provides expertly crafted imagery, cinematography, and music, but of course, the film is not without faults. Some dialogue feels off, and even if it were the intention of the director to have oddities like that, it did occasionally remove me from the film and fail to connect certain themes at the moments when I was removed. Some scenes such as the torture scene in the club felt a bit comical despite the gruesome violence being presented, which again led to that same removal from the moment. However, these issues, overall, are minor qualms in a movie that has a brilliantly explored underlying idea. In my opinion, it far surpasses Drive in every way – it possesses more than a simple story fueled by action and exciting (though, I have to admit, beautifully shot) sequences. It does not shy away from challenging the viewer to think deeper into the meanings and realities of the film, and what its implications could be in the real world.
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