“Only God Forgives”: A Reaction
Only God Forgives (2013)
The headline read: “Only God Forgives. Cannes Audience Does Not”. Being referenced was the not inconsequential number of walkouts during the screening of Only God Forgives. It has further been reported that of those enduring this picture in its entirety, many greeted the final credits with booing. One reaction, although positive, admitted that Only God Forgives would nonetheless “have people running for the exits and for the hills.”
The prospect of experiencing certain grisly or horrific scenes motivates this desire, in some, to run. Degrees of toleration toward violence vary and the desire to run, while not mine, is one I understand and one I have no interest in judging. Others, however, extend their gaze beyond their level of comfort and see little of worth in Only God Forgives. Hollow or shallow or lacking in depth are but a few of the descriptive words or phrases I have heard attached to this picture. I do not share such interpretations.
The Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is one preferring to communicate through means other than the spoken word. In his 2009 Valhalla Rising, chief character One Eye utters not one word in the entire picture. In Only God Forgives, the viewer is almost one-third of the way through before Julian, central to this picture and present from its earliest moments, speaks his second word. Viewers do not always adjust easily to a filmmaker who, in place of conversation, prefers communicating through other sorts of sounds and silences; through what is seen and what lies beyond.
Winding Refn has stated that a core to the idea for Only God Forgives was a person at war with God. As this idea has taken shape in Only God Forgives, viewers experience Julian as that man at war. His brother Billy has committed murder and Chang, an other-worldly lieutenant of the Thai police force, allows the father of the murdered to do what he wishes with Billy. When news reaches the mother of Billy and Julian, she travels from the United States to Bangkok and sets Julian upon taking revenge. In this way, the paths of Julian and Chang are bound to cross.
Throughout Only God Forgives the viewer is afforded repeated imaging of the hands of Julian. What Julian does with them, and what he imagines doing with them, varies. He imagines using his hands, in one scene, to bring pleasure to a woman with whom a sort of relationship exists. As he is drawn back into reality, however, those same hands become instruments of violence. I interpret the variance between what Julian imagines doing with his hands and what he actually does with them as hinting toward a sort of disconnect between the person Julian is and the person he desires to be. As Only God Forgives progresses, a question arises which surrounds whether there will be a still further severing between the person Julian is and the person he desires to be or whether, perhaps, he will experience some healing and reintegration.
In one scene, Julian’s hands are entirely neutralized and have no effect on the one against whom they have been extended. Julian is rendered entirely at the power of this other; this god-like Chang. In Julian’s imagination, a sword — the means with which, the viewer will learn, Chang executes justice — severs one of Julian’s hands and, in another scene, Julian places his hands under the tap of a sink only to have them covered with blood. The repeated imaging of the hands of Julian point to something he has done with them — something for which, perhaps, he has thus far escaped justice — and this brings Julian to where he is when he encounters Chang.
Winding Refn has stated that the god-like status of Chang is intentional. He appears omniscient, for example. One look at Julian is all it takes for him to utter the words “he is not the one” and thus disassociate Julian from a particular act of vengeance which has been initiated by the mother of Julian. Chang anticipates, and thus foils, an assassination attempt and he peculiarly knows the exact corner to stand upon and the exact alley from which one of his would-be assassins will emerge. He appears omnipotent, as well. Upon being trailed, in another scene, he literally appears to vanish 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 possibly encounter one more powerful than he is unfathomable.
Despite this “man” against whom Julian’s energies have been directed, there is one who poses an even greater threat to Julian. While, literally, Julian finds himself between the competing figures of Chang and his own mother, less literally, these characters personify the god-like and the satanic. Unlike his mother and brother, traces of goodness still exist within Julian and it is his mother, rather than Chang, who poses the greatest threat to the goodness still within Julian. She has completed her work in her other son who, before unveiling the evil of his own character, introduces that part of himself by saying “time to meet the devil”. Not coincidentally, each time Julian acts in a way which could be construed as good it is because he has disregarded the stated wishes of his mother. Nonetheless she is still someone whose influence continues to be impacting in his life.
In Catholic theology the concept of original sin speaks to the degree to which each human person is damaged upon experiencing the world he or she is thrown into: When the human relationship have been damaged since the first humans, Joseph Ratzinger writes, every human person born consequently enters into a world marked by relational damage. His or her existence, which is a good thing, is nonetheless confronted by a damaged world. Each person enters into a situation in which relationality has been hurt and, consequently, each person falls short in engaging in those relations as he or she ought.
The world into which Julian has been conditioned has made him the person he is. His freedom has diminished and yet, while the evil his brother Billy personifies may exist on his own horizon as one possible outcome, Julian is not yet beyond the possibility of experiencing healing. Thus Chang, rather than being the one against whom Julian must continue to fight, emerges as the one who might possibly hold the key to the liberation of Julian. Only God Forgives is not hollow, or shallow or lacking in depth. It reflects with some appreciation on a tradition of wisdom which holds that the human person, damaged though he or she may be, nonetheless can find freedom in surrendering to one who can facilitate his or her healing.
I also write at Musings on Film where this post first appeared on 28 August 2013.