Only God Forgives. 2013. Nicholas Winding Refn, director. Denmark.
The headline could have read “Only God Forgives. Cannes Audience Cannot”. A not inconsequential number of walkouts occurred during early screenings of Only God Forgives. It has been reported that, of those enduring this picture in its entirety, many accompanied the final credits with booing. One reaction, although positive, admitted that Only God Forgives would “have people running for the exits and for the hills”.
The prospect of experiencing certain grisly or horrific scenes will reasonably motivate some to bypass Only God Forgives. Degrees of toleration toward violence vary. Others, however, have extended their gaze toward the film and find little of worth therein. “Hollow” or “shallow” or “lacking in depth” are but a few of the descriptors attached to this picture. I do not share this assessment.
The Danish Nicolas Winding Refn seems one often preferring to communicate through means other than the spoken word. In Valhalla Rising, his chief character One Eye uttered not one word the entire picture. In Only God Forgives, the viewer is almost one-third of the way through the picture before Julian – central to Only God Forgives and present from its earliest moments – speaks his second word. Not all viewers adjust easily to a filmmaker who, in place of conversation, prefers communicating through other sorts of sounds and silences; through what is seen and through what lies beyond.
Winding Refn identifies a core to Only God Forgives as being a person at war with God. As this core takes shape, viewers experience Julian as that person at war. His brother Billy has committed murder and Chang, an other-worldly lieutenant in the Thai police force, allows the father of the murdered to do what he wishes with Billy. Crystal, mother to Billy and Julian, travels to Bangkok and sets Julian upon revenge. In this way, the paths of Julian and Chang collide.
Throughout Only God Forgives the hands of Julian are repeatedly imaged. What Julian does with his hands, and what he imagines doing with them, vary. He imagines using his hands, in one scene, to pleasure a woman with whom a sort of relationship exists. As he is drawn back into reality, however, his hands are enlisted as instruments of violence. I interpret the variance between what Julian imagines doing with his hands, and what he actually does with them, as indicating a sort of disconnect in Julian. As Only God Forgives progresses, a question arises surrounding whether there will be a still further severing of the person Julian is from the person he desires to be.
At one moment in Only God Forgives, the hands of Julian are entirely neutralized and have no effect on Chang. In the imagination of Julian, it is a sword – the means by which Chang executes justice – that severs one hand belonging to Julian. At another moment, when Julian places his hands under the tap of a sink, instead of being cleansed he sees them covered with blood. Being symbolized, I think, is something Julian has done his hands; something for which he has thus far escaped justice. This too brings him into relationship with Chang.
Winding Refn states that the god-like status of Chang is intentional. Chang does appear omniscient: One look is all it takes for Chang to disassociate Julian from an act of vengeance designed by Crystal. On another occasion, Chang anticipates an attempt on his own life and knows the exact corner to stand upon and the exact alley from which his would-be assassin will emerge. Chang appears omnipotent: Upon being trailed, he literally vanishes into thin air and, when exacting justice, he brandishes a sword pulled from no discernible sheath. Chang is never seen at a disadvantage. That he might encounter one more powerful than he is unfathomable.
Crystal, I think, poses the real danger to Julian. If Chang personifies something of the god-like, then Crystal gives flesh to the satanic. Unlike Billy, traces of goodness still exist within Julian and it is his mother who threatens that goodness. Crystal has completed her work in Billy: Before unveiling the evil of his own character, Billy actually introduces that part of himself by saying “time to meet the devil”. Each time Julian evidences a glimmer of the goodness still within him, not coincidentally, it is because he has disregarded his mother. Crystal remains, however, someone whose influence continues to impact upon his life.
In Christianity, original sin speaks of the degree to which each human being has been damaged upon experiencing the world into which he or she has been thrown: As human relationships have been damaged from their very earliest moments, one Catholic writes, every human person born enters into a world marked by relational damage. Because each enters into situations in which relationality has been hurt, each falls short in engaging as he or she ought.
The world into which Julian has been conditioned has influenced the sort of person he has become. His freedom has diminished and yet, while the evil his brother personifies may indeed exist on his own horizon, Julian is not yet beyond the possibility of experiencing healing and reintegration. Chang, rather than being the one against whom Julian must keep fighting, emerges as a possible liberator. Only God Forgives is not hollow or shallow or lacking in depth. The film reflects upon a tradition of wisdom which holds that the human person, damaged though he or she may be, can find freedom in surrendering to one who facilitates his or her healing and reintegration.
Only God Forgives has an MPAA rating of R for “strong bloody violence including grisly images, sexual content and language”.