The Reel Deal
ONLY GOD FORGIVES
A Reel Deal Film Review
By Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 5 out of 5
“THINGS WITHOUT ALL REMEDY”
There’s a moment in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth where Lady Macbeth tells her husband: “Why do you keep alone, of sorriest fancies your companions making, using those thoughts which should indeed have died with them they think on? Things without all remedy should be without regard. What’s done is done.”
But, as Macbeth himself well knows and as the play eventually shows, what’s done is never done, the past stores up inside of us, and bleeds into everything that comes after. As every schoolboy has learned from Isaac Newton and from the pulling of a fellow schoolgirl’s pigtails: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Action and reaction, cause and effect, the lengthy concatenation of occurrences, the chain of events that go on forever, eternally domino effecting, spreading like wildfire, from a beginning potentially so simple and minute as the flap of a butterfly’s wings.
Only God Forgives–the new film by director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling, hot off the success of their previous team-up Drive–is a movie about revenge and, thus, involves at its very core this concept of action and reaction. Of course, the film doesn’t begin with the simple and minute event of the flap of a butterfly’s wings, but instead, with a boxing match, a drug deal, and the rape and murder of a young sex worker.
Julian Thompson (Ryan Gosling), an American expat in Bangkok, runs a boxing club with his older brother as a front for their drug operation. Julian is a man of few words, his sadistic brother is slightly more talkative, but only by comparison. The movie is heavy on eerie silent scenes that erupt into unsettling violence, and light on dialogue. But the brother begins the movie with the line “Time to meet the devil,” and is soon saying, “I want to fuck a fourteen year old.” After raping and murdering a young girl, he is in kind killed by her father, thanks to the intervention of a mysterious plainclothes policeman named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), also known as the “Angel of Vengeance.” But as vengeance begets vengeance, revenge spawning revenge, the whole situation spirals out of control, especially with the entrance of Julian’s mother (Kristin Scott Thomas).
The film reminded me of a recalibrated Macbeth, but though there is a rather “Out damned spot” style handwashing and though Refn himself described Mrs. Thompson as “Lady Macbeth meets Donatella Versace,” Refn borrows as much from Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, Gaspar Noé, and Wong Kar Wai as he does from the Bard. Only God Forgives is a haunting meditation on vengeance, violence, causality, and the possibility of a human potential for forgiveness. As the Angel of Vengeance enacts his justice, he begins to resemble a Batman of sorts, with a blade and no code against killing. It’s fitting he’s a cop, because the questions of who gets to decide what is just, and who gets to dispense said justice, are at the very core of this film, questions that must always come up in discussions of law enforcement, be it by the police, the Caped Crusader, or a Thai lieutenant carrying a katana. It’s a spaghetti western taken to its logical extension down the rabbithole of perpetual violent retaliation, a revenge fantasy that gets introspective on, or at least seems to question, its own bloodlust. Where does this violence so innate in our primate species come from? And where does a cycle of violence, once started, end? At what point is justice unjust? At what point can a human being forgive? Or is the title true? Are we incapable of such compassion? Can only God forgive?
Refn’s film doesn’t necessarily answer the questions it raises, but it certainly asks them, knowing that things without all remedy still warrant some regard.
Only God Forgives is a film written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. It stars Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Vithaya Pansringarm. Julian, a drug-smuggler thriving in Bangkok’s criminal underworld, sees his life get even more complicated when his mother compels him to find and kill whoever is responsible for his brother’s recent death.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of the FilmDistrict
Design by Marie Havens
Film Still from Only God Forgives, Photography Courtesy of the FilmDistrict