Never trust older Asian men in sandals, that’s my advice!
Written By: Nicolas Winding Refn
Directed By: Nicolas Winding Refn
Power is at the heart of revenge, but what happens when someone is powerless? What good can come from revenge being foisted upon someone who does not seek that emotional release? How does someone decide to find their power? Where does sacrifice come into play, and can sacrifice equal power? A bevy of questions, none of which are answered in Only God Forgives. They are all asked though, and that’s why Nicolas Winding Refn’s film is a brilliant work of anti-revenge.
We’ve been trained as cinephiles to look for certain things in our films. When a movie begins with testosterone fueled scenes and death, the next logical step is revenge. Power games are afoot, the players move into position and what will follow is an adrenaline surge of revenge. A monkey wrench is thrown into the mix, neither of our possible protagonists (although antagonists would fit them just as well) are interested in revenge. One of them will kill, but only when the killing is called for. The other has spent his life play acting at being powerful, but there’s no true power within him. Instead of being a film about revenge Only God Forgives is an anti-revenge film. The powerless are forced into situations they do not desire, and revenge is sought, but against the wishes of the two men who we follow throughout the film.
When those two men meet up in the middle of the film and fight it’s not a display of power. It’s a struggle to be something they are not. Julian is not at home being the warrior, or the killer. That’s why he so nonchalantly asks Chang if he wants to fight. Chang is a warrior and a killer, but only when he feels he has to be. They fight, and their lopsided affair cements the trajectory of these two men. One is becoming powerful because of his ability to finally see how powerless he has always been. The other is trapped, forever forced to be the one with physical power dishing out judgement. Factors in his life have left Chang not in control of his own destiny. He appears powerful, but the truth of his situation is that he is a slave to the world around him. In the physical sense one man clearly wins the fight between the two, but in a deeper sense the one who has been beaten down has gained the greatest victory of them all, his path to power.
Julian starts Only God Forgives as a weak character, and he ends as a very powerful one. He’s at peace with his place in the world, with what he has done and why he did it. He and Chang are finally yin and yang, they are opposites and Julian’s final actions reveal how he now possesses the true strength between the two. Unlike Chang he is in charge of his own fate, Julian is now able to decide what path his life will take. The same cannot be said for Chang, who will always be stuck as the outward representation of a power that he does not possess on the inside.
There’s also a movie going on while all these power games are taking place. A well filmed and highly stylized film. Nicolas Winding Refn creates gorgeous visuals in Only God Forgives. The visuals serve to give Only God Forgives the poetic edge that allows all the themes to hit harder. At the same time Herr Refn trusts his actors and allows them to deliver their performances through body mannerisms instead of words. Ryan Gosling is especially impressive as his character says so much in every single scene while barely uttering any words. Story, emotion, and atmosphere need not be found or established in spoken dialogue. Only God Forgives is a great example of the power of mood and physical acting.
Only God Forgives is the best film I’ve seen from Herr Refn, so far. He’s an eloquent filmmaker, one who is at home painting the picture of the film with his visuals. There’s a lot to chew on in Only God Forgives, much more than what is bubbling to the surface. I’ve used this expression before, but Only God Forgives is a vividly expressed tone poem. It’s full of life and looks at the idea of masculinity in a frank and refreshing manner. One thing is for certain, Only God Forgives is an experience, a welcome experience in my film world.