Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Space Oddities Film Review - Only God forgives

Only God forgives

Only God forgives is a 2013 film featuring Ryan Gosling set in Thailand, the film centres around a man named Julian (Ryan Gosling) whose Muay Thai boxing business is secretly a drugs smuggling empire controlled by his abusive, hostile mother. The film also features Vithaya Pansringarm as Lt Chang, a chief in the Thai police who follows Julian and his mothers movements with a murderuous passion.

There is an undertone of psychological themes, particularly in regards to the relationship between Julian and his mother which is depicted as being deeply troubling; Julian's mother, Crystal, viciously emmasculates her son in the wake of his brother's death which occurs early on in the film and is also manipulative and hostile. He frequently attempts to prove his manliness in face of his mothers vicious taunting by using the traditional notions of manliness in that might is right and being bulletproof. He owns a Muay Thai ring and challenges Lt Chang to a fight, he is brutally beaten by the Lieutenant and this failure costs him the relationship of a Thai girl named Mai and earns him more scorn from his mother.

Despite his mothers abusive attitude towards him Julian is almost enslaved to his mother and carries out her last orders to kill Lt Chang to prevent her from being killed herself. Upon his mother's death however Julian's morale compass appears to take a turn; during the attempted assasination of Lt Chang he kills his conspirator to prevent him from killing Lt Chang's daughter and even goes so far to have his hands lopped off by Lt Chang, why is not known, whether it is in penance for his sins or whether he was forced to do it is left ambiguous.

Figure - 1 Julian bares his fists in the Muay Thai club, symbols of masculinity are prevalent in the club such as naked statues and boxing portraits.

David Sexton of the Standard states "this is a study in weakness, submission, impotence, symbolic castration even. Julian’s apparent composure masks paralysis and guilt. Julian gazes repeatedly at his open hands and then makes a fist — but when he comes to fight he cannot land a blow. For he is in thrall to his contemptuous dragon mother." (Sexton, 2013). Sexton's quote is a brief but true analysis of the film; Julian's calm and quiet demeanor is a cover for troubled feelings, he constantly tries to prove to his mother that he is capable of being the "man" she wants him to be but this conflicts with his own guilt of ccarrying out such violent and hurtful acts.

Ultimately after his bust up with Lt Chang, Julian's willpower seems to overcome his mother's influence and he atones by preventing the death of Lt Chang's daughter and by having his hands lopped of by Lt Chang himself.

Lt Chang is an enigma of a man, although appearing old and weary he is nevertheless physically and mentally robust as he demonstrates by effortlessly beating a conditioned Julian in a fist fight and by committing brutal acts on criminals with little remorse. Lt Chang sits neatly in the realm of violent justice dishing out his own acts of retribution (which are followed and respected by his officers), it is possible that he sees himself as not evil but rather necessary evil, prehaps even as an avenging angel to the equally murderous criminals he pursues. As we progress into the film we see Lt Chang doing relatively "normal" (or humane in terms of his personality) things such as caring for his daughter and singing bland karaoke to equally bland officers. It is unnerving to see a man of such brutality perform such acts, they seem so out of character.

Lt Chang is very grounded in his beliefs and does not flinch even when he brutally tortures a criminal for information, he seems to have converted his officers to his way of thinking as well. The portrayal of his character is quite interesting; he walks slowly and appears emoitionless throughout the film, he constantly wears black and oddly for a police officer has no insignias. This could be symbolic of his position, not just as a police officer, but as a dealer of justice; someone who is apart from the system and someone who acts with supreme authority. Interestingly he appears to have a sort of "supernatural" aura around him, he manages predict and to survive an assasination attempt as well as carry around a samurai with almost impeccable stealth, and dressed in black he could be symbolic of a grim reaper of sorts.

Figure - 2 Crystal, Julian's mother, is bathed in blue and red light in a male strip club.

The cinematography of the film carries conviction, Figure 2 in particular demonstrates the two main light colours present in the film; red and blue. The symbolism behind the lights are a little difficult to discern, red could be symbolic of violence or passion with the blue light being of redemption or guilt. Alternatively delving deeper into the pyschological theme there are a few metaphysical acts that occur in the coloured lights, for instance in the blue light Julian washes his hands only to see blood pouring out of the taps and in the red light he hallucinates about his hands being chopped off.

Peter Travers of the Rolling Stone mentions in his review: "Cinematographer Larry Smith, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on lighting Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut (check out the sex-club scenes), gives the film a toxic allure." (Travers, 2013) In agreement with this point is the statement about "toxic allure", the lighting and cinematography coupled with the psychology compressed beneath the facades of Ryan Golsing and Kristin Scott-Thomas give the film a very morbid feel. The boundaries between good, evil and necessary evil become blurred on both sides of the law (Lt Chang and Julian) and this gives food for thought about the characters, prehaps their limited dialogue is meant to enable use to ponder their characters and feelings and prehaps that is what also makes the film watchable.

Speaking philosophically, Only God forgives, could be seen as a showdown between good and evil. According to Steven Holden of the New York Times in an interview with the director Nicolas William Refn stated "The original concept for the film was to make a movie about a man who wants to fight God". (Holden, 2013) this quote is interesting as it looks more broadly at the whole film, one could interpret from this the struggle between good and evil or rather than struggle the clash between good and evil. We se Lt Chang as the quiet albeit violent beacon of good and Crystal as the beacon of evil, these two characters weild the most power and ultimately are responsible for the atrocities that occur. They both order their minions around and wield near total power over them, despite the fact that the concept of the film has changed slightly is still begs the question; which one of them is a God? And which one of them is fighting? Is Lt Chang taking on the devil? Or is Crystal taking on God?. The film has no religious themes but it is interesting to draw these parallels from the characters, the cinematography presented and the psychological themes.


Holden.S, 2013, in-only-god-forgives-a-mother-is-bent-on-revenge.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=0 [ONLINE], Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/19/movies/in-only-god-forgives-a-mother-is-bent-on-revenge.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=0 [Accessed 9th December 2014]
Sexton.D, 2013, only-god-forgives--film-review-8743172.html [ONLINE], Available at: http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/film/only-god-forgives--film-review-8743172.html [Accessed 9th December 2014]

Travers.P, 2013, only-god-forgives-20130719 [ONLINE], Available at: http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/reviews/only-god-forgives-20130719 [Accessed 9th December 2014]

Illustration List
Figure - 1
 Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013, only-god-forgives_still.jpg [ONLINE] Available at: https://confessionsfromageekmind.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/only-god-forgives_still.jpg [Accessed 9th December 2014]

Figure - 2
Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013, kristin-scott-thomas-only-god-forgives.jpg [ONLINE] Avialable at: http://newnownext.mtvnimages.com/2013/05/kristin-scott-thomas-only-god-forgives.jpg [Accessed 9th December 2014]


  1. You've put a lot of thought into this review Max, well done :)
    Just a few technical points... firstly, don't forget to italicise your quotes. Also, when you use an image, it is enough to have a very brief caption to accompany them, rather than a full description. For example, by fig. 2, you have a very thorough analysis of the use of light around Crystal, but you then go on to say pretty much the same thing in the main body of the text. It would be enough to say 'Figure 2, Crystal in male strip club'.
    Your bibliography should be organised by author's surname first, and listed alphabetically...so in your case here, you would have

    Holden, S.
    Sexton, D.
    Travers, P.