Thursday, 10 December 2015

"Only God Forgives" (2013) - A review.

Fig 1.
Only God Forgives” (2013) by director Nicolas Winding Refn is a hot mess of surrealist imagery, oedipal suggestion - amongst other Freudian notions - and only once past these notions could you simply call it a Thai police drama. In fact, it is in this very important distinction that “Only God Forgives” either succeeds or fails.

Concerning Julian, an American expatriate who runs a Muay Thai club in Bangkok, his older brother Billy (by this point a child rapist/murderer) having just been killed by Chang - a Thai police officer with a rather righteous moral compass. The real crux of this movie is the relationship the brothers shared with their mother, Crystal, and this is also where much of the conflict stems from. The film is a brutal affair with characters pushed to the extreme until it is as though they are ciphers for much larger ideas.

Within the first few minutes it becomes apparent that these ideas are prevalent, the scene that first comes to mind is the first time we see the character, Mai, an ‘entertainer’ Julian frequents. Britt Hayes - reflecting that  “She ties him to a chair while she masturbates, and prophetic, dreamlike sequences are inter-cut with moments of reality” (Hayes, 2013) It is interesting to note of Julian as he watches intently, that he is watching not with lust but instead with longing. Hayes goes on to suggest parity between this and the words of Sigmund Freud “men are constantly trying to find their way back home, to that familiar place that holds all the answers to their existence -- to get back to the womb” (Hayes, 2013) and this idea is certainly echoed within the plot. Certainly pertaining to his mother, Crystal. It is alluded to within the unfolding of events that Crystal played the brothers off against each other, Julian often coming off the worse, giving rise to notions of powerlessness. He is at odds with his brother for his mother's affection and it is even suggested too that he is at odds with his father, when it is revealed that Julian’s reason for fleeing America was due to him murdering his Father. It seems as though Julian expresses these frustrations in the form of a repressed anger/lust tied into the oedipus complex. This culminates in a later scene where Julian cuts open the corpse of Crystal - at the stomach - and puts his hand inside. He is, effectively, returning home.
Fig 2.

The repeated imagery of arms, particularly arms being bound or cut off seems to suggest a removal of agency, a struggle with powerlessness. Hayes goes on to say “...masculinity and power reside in the hands and fists of these men” (Hayes, 2013)  And the key to this notion is contained within the character of Chang, who is the cipher for righteous judgement, a man who literally removes people's agency and power in the form of removing their arms. And it is within “Only God Forgives” most poetic moment that Julian submits to this judgement. His brother is dead, his mother too, the tensions which most vexed now nonexistent, he willingly removes his power as he has no more use for it.

Concerning the ‘look’ of the film, the neon lighting creates “...an impression of the city’s underground as an exotic, abstract hellscape where the forces of absolute evil and ultimate judgment co-exist” (Tobias, 2013). The interesting thing to note here is the eventual dilution and dissipation of dreamlike scenes basked in red light. It is as though the distinction between the two eventually is unimportant as Julian’s struggle with his inward emotions spill out into real world events.

Fig 3.

Only God Forgives” seems to be misunderstood when taken literally, but it becomes an enthralling experience when viewed through a Freudian lense. When the viewer comes to terms with the fact that what they are seeing is perhaps not as literal as what they should be thinking. It is indeed a film based on suggestion of depth, in true Jodorowsky fashion.


Hayes, Britt. 'ONLY GOD FORGIVES Is Uncannily Freudian| Britt Hayes'. birthmoviesdeath.com. [online] Available at: http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2013/07/19/only-god-forgives-is-uncannily-freudian [Accessed 10 Dec. 2015]   

Tobias, Scott. ‘Only God Forgives, review| Scott Tobias. The Dissolve.com. [online] Available at: https://thedissolve.com/reviews/66-only-god-forgives/ [Accessed 10 Dec. 2015)


Fig 1. Only God Forgives Poster. [image] Available at: http://a4.mzstatic.com/us/r30/Video6/v4/d8/aa/7d/d8aa7d83-1fa5-b764-7bf3-20caaf80062a/mza_713610779623051545.jpg [Accessed 10 Dec. 2015]

Fig 2. Julian in the bathroom. [image] Available at: http://a.fastcompany.net/multisite_files/cocreate/poster/2013/07/1683424-poster-p-only-god-forgives-ryan-gosling.jpg [Accessed 10 Dec. 2015]

Fig 3. Muay Thai club. [image] Available at:
http://screenmusings.org/movie/blu-ray/Only-God-Forgives/images/Only-God-Forgives-021.jpg [Accessed 10 Dec. 2015]



  1. another satisfying review, Joe - I think you nailed this film :)

    1. Thanks Phil :)

      Initially I didn't think I was going to like it, in fact - I've seen the first half hour before, but I fell asleep. But this time around I was ready and thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm looking into picking up Refn's other works and some more of Kubrick's and I'm going to have a massive binge over the break.

      Also I think I'm going to carry on reviewing films throughout the break (as much as I can in Florida anyway).