Initially this film struck a sour chord with me. Recently, however, I've completely flipped my opinion of this film. I find having watched this movie multiple times that it had a depth I didn't really grasp the first time around. What I took away from this film initially was that the movie just a pretentious disaster. It failed completely to communicate any real meaning to me. I thought there was nothing behind the movie, no real messages or subtext that were present. It seemed overly simple in regards to it's plot. I couldn't find any real thoughtfulness, and I had the honest opinion it was just depressing for depression's sake. But I love Refn way too much to write him off! So I decided to get back on the horse and force myself to watch what I had thought to be a complete flop another time. Upon a second viewing I came up with a few theory's which add much strength to the events on screen. There's much in this film that is really subtle, but once you pick up on it the beauty of this film flow's free.
The first time I saw this movie I wanted a refund. Not necessarily because I thought the movie was that bad, but because I had thought Nicolas Winding Refn had lost his insightful eye. That was heartbreaking as a fan, but I had a real problem with the Film. It wasn't one detail either, it seemed like everything was out of place and wasn't good. Sure it was pretty but to me it lacked realness to it that is always very apparent in Nicolas Winding Refn films.
I had a lot of problem's initially with all aspects of the film. Everything seemed too artificial. The characters were too emotionless, they just went prancing about doing awful things for little or no reason. The color's seemed a little much at point's. Numbers of shades and hue's assaulted my retina's with an alarming amount's of Neon. Everything looked cluttered, lacking a particular neatness Refn had always employed in his Dystopian style. Unnecessary theme's and random object's were often stuck in frame to make thing's look cooler, but added nothing to the feel or tone of the narrative. Also their seemed to be a sort of lack of narrative, I had a sinking feeling most of the time that I was missing part of the story.
After the bitter taste Only God Forgives left in my mouth, I wanted to cleanse my pallet and watch a few of Refn's greats. (Or you know everything he's done) Three film's in particular always have held a special place close to my heart. The Pusher Trilogy is a true monument to Refn's style of film making, and after I watched them for the thousandth time, I had an epiphany about the style of Only God Forgives, and made a strange connection between the two.
Even the filthiest moments of the Pusher series, there was a strange order to everything. Society is anarchy around the structured plot, and the characters live in vocal opposition of world trying to control them. But, uniquely there was an intricate order involved in dealing and controlling the product that allowed there people to live the lives they were. A web of command is spun down through the bowels of Copenhagen passing bag's of Heroin down the ladder, and bag's of cash upwards.
A hierarchy of drug dealers like Milo carried all of the influence in this place, they were almost secular in their strength. Drug dealers seem godlike in this part of the world as they controlled who lived and died. The first film portrayed the power of the omnipotent Milo the Serbian, and how he imposed his will. Then the second movie showed that the chain that moves the Heroin extended past Milo. These two have a very similar set-up and series of action, while the last one differs. Although it deals with the same theme's, and the story progresses similarly, its the charecter depiction't that make it stand out. The third film is the reckoning of the Milo, the godlike character of the first film. The similar theme all these film's share are that their is a final result of your lifestyle and mistakes. It was this theme and the third film in particular that made me realize something about Only God Forgives.
I had always been able to identify and empathize with the complex characters Reif had created. A reason I had always been so absorbed in his lucid flicks was that although the style was surrealistic, their was an incredibly real edge that grounded the movie and made it relatable. The plot was grounded and characters were all really unique with very real aspects and personality traits that were common and unique at the same time. They are different enough to distinguish them, but common enough to remind you of someone you knew. Refn always did this to give his character's depth and make them stand out against the faceless masses that surround them in the movie. There was a distinct lack of these characterizations in Only God Forgives. The choice of doing this too two character's in particular that this seemed especially strange.
I felt separation from the cold characterization of Lieutenant Chang (Pansringarm), he is a police officer and is the main enemy of the family this film revolves around. Ryan Goslings character Julian is emotionless throughout the entire film as well. He is a former professional fighter, gym owner and is living with his drug dealing brother. Although he may be a drug dealer as well, I just kinda felt bad for Julian. He's speaks very little during the film and just seem's like a damaged child. He's too weak to even be in the position he was in, somewhat innocent and clearly disturbed. It seem's strange with a character with such a rich development would portray such a limited spectrum of emotion, even with the gravity of the situation's he is placed in. It was on the second watch I gained a realization of why the characters were like this.
Chang was supposed to be the arm of justice getting revenge of those who were wrong, but he seemed too clean, seemed like he had no conscious. He was completely unfeeling even in the most emotionally disturbing moments of the film. It was almost inhuman how he acted especially in the position he represented. It seemed Chang cared nothing for human's yet he always sides with those who were most human. He protected them in their moment of weaknesses. It would have been clearly beneficial for Chang to align himself with the drug lords, but he didn't . He was high enough up that no-one could touch him for corruption as well, but he stuck to his moral's. Which was weird because he didn't feel for people.
I think the reason why he is unsympathetic to those he protects is because he is an Angel of Destruction sent as an instrument of God to bring absolution to those who are too powerful. That is why he is unfeeling, he is not human and cares nothing for them, but his master will reward his service. Everyone who has wronged the innocent are punished accordingly for the crimes they have committed. Chang is the one pure section of Refn's universe. Usually his characters have exuberant personalities and traits that distinguish them from anyone else, part of the reason they are always so memorable. Chang is the least human character Refn has created, there's no quirks, hobbies, or colorful traits that set's Chang apart from the faceless in the movie. Because of this and his unchanging demeanor he emits an air of danger and is singularly more unique than anyone else. He is there for one purpose and one purpose only, too deliver vengeance. Once his mission is completed, Chang is granted eternal happiness as his reward for service, hence the severe change in tone for the last scene on the movie.
Lucian's family have risen to such prominence exporting drug's, that they are untouchable in their country they are immune. Their Muay Thai gym, is a front for this business and is so large now that the purely legal side is famously profitable. They are untouchable, and incredibly immoral. Chang is the only one with conviction and power too stop them. This theory makes the plot and Julian's characterization much stronger. He grew up a victim to the environment around him, and that explains his mental state. He is insane but is still somewhat pure, and that is why he was sparred, and why he fail's so miserably in his attempts to fight Chang, he is trying to fight fate, a force much larger than him.(literal representation of the inevitability of death)
Think of the plot of Only God Forgives as Pusher 4, Only God Forgives. Here the theme of Pusher makes sense, people who can not be purged because of their standing are getting uprooted by a higher power, a power from beyond. It's a story of the hierarchy learning of a power greater than them, and this power is not happy with them. When you watch the film with this in mind religious overtones flood out at you. It also explain's all of the what seemed like needless debauchery from Julian's family, the purpose was to portray them in the worst possible light. They are the worst scum on earth. They look only for personal gain, and they harmed as many people as it took to get what they wanted. They had complete disregard for all life but theirs.
The Film's different approach to aesthetic's are reinforced by this theory as well. Pusher employed a hyper realistic style to show the humanity of each character and just how fragile human life is. Only God Forgives on the other hand, dabbles in David Lynch's territory and much of the story is told in a surrealist style. This is done to bring emphasis that this story's depth exceeded humanity. Any narration not spoken is told internally with the heavy use of lighting. As well as the contrast of light and shadow.
The heavy use of red over Julian and his family are a foreshadowing of their fate, as well as playing to the allusion of the depravity of their nature, while Chang's character is almost always bathed in florescent white light. Every bulb placed is to amplify the feeling of the character and make allusion's to their humanity, as well as weave a web to be unraveled into the natures of the characters it covers. The use of style in this movie made it surreal and alluded that this story expands past a psychical lens. Upon further viewing, I fell in love with a film that formerly frustrated and confused me. I think the matter of negative opinion surrounding this film is from a lack of understanding. Overall I enjoyed this movie a lot more upon a second viewing and I think you may all pull more from it as well.