This article contains spoilers.
Cinema was built for dreams. It’s almost cliché now, adding dreams, dream sequences, dream-scapes; endless tumbling ambiguity to add depth and distance to a film. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013) is not a dream in the sense of Inception (2010) or Spellbound (1945) but more in the sense of a light day-dream inciting calm before a violent storm. On paper, the film looks typically like a modern thriller, spliced with crime, drugs and violence. In Refn’s Jodorowsky-indebted hands, Only God Forgives turns into a layered group of cycles and colours, happily unsure as to its progression through time.
In terms of Tarkovsky, the sculpting moves counter to other modern thrillers. This colourful sculpture has smooth sides that give false impressions and curve around until leading the viewer back upon themselves. Most film-writers at some point fall back on using musical terms incorrectly to describe films but Only God Forgives has the feel of a genuine sonata built from colour, Karaoke and violence. Like all good sonatas it starts with a solid Exposition. Julian’s brother has raped and killed the daughter of a man in Bangkok leading to a chain reaction of violent reprisals, bouncing back and forth between the Bangkok police and the criminal family that Julian (Ryan Gosling) belongs to.
This Exposition phase is drenched in neon, specifically reds and blues. The main thematic material (or primary thematic material) is introduced and largely revolves around visuals of the hands and arms. They are used for violence, for love and taken as punishment by the police chief (Vithaya Pansringarm) with his expert use of a sword. These arms are constantly appearing, sometimes leading to day-dreams, sometimes leading to punishment. This Exposition has several transition groups but largely revolves around Julian’s dreams and visits to the remaining sisters of the dead girl who are all in some way erotic entertainers.
Reality slips by and Julian hallucinates his punishment. The characters of the film, so certain of their sonata recapitulation, seem to have a sixth sense for the future. Bangkok is so keyed in to its own rhythms that the slightest change can be felt by its inhabitants. While Julian basks in the déjà vu of his own punishment, the administrator of this unforgiving landscape can also sense this change. From his first visit to the initial the scene of the crime, his passive nature suggests that everything that happens from then on is beyond inevitable; it is written in stone and can therefore be predicted. As suggested though, the sculpture has curves. The day-dream of his punishment leads back to sexual fantasies, or are they realities? The arms come into play again. They are tied up to a chair by one seductress, used by another for her own pleasure but are always at the mercy of someone else.
The presence of his mother brings the film to its Development section in sonata terms. Kristin Scott Thomas’ Crystal changes the whole dynamic of the film, providing rhythmic instability for the characters which manifests in emotionally shaky ground. She mourns her son but wants violent revenge, almost unfazed by the death and angrier at the imbalance in her perceived view of justice. They key of the film changes, the colours transmute from neons to placid lights and emphasis turns from distanced, passing thoughts to the Oedipus complex that Julian very clearly harbours.
The arms become less frequent for the Development; it seems necessary to leave them behind in order to justify Julian’s change of mind. His brother has gone from deserving what he got to needing justice in a single lash of his mother’s tongue. It becomes obvious where his jealousy of his brother comes from. Crystal talks down to Julian, bullies him, even compares the size of his brother’s cock as a form brotherly competition. His reactions build and turn full circle in terms of Oedipus for the film’s Recapitulation. It turns out he murdered his father with his bare hands. Even when he first greets his mother, her position is almost flirtatious, their actions those of distanced, heartbroken lovers rather than that of a parental-offspring pairing. Failed murder attempts on the police chief leads to torture but the violence is similar in tone to the film’s first segment. Karaoke was introduced during the Exposition; being shown to be a performance by the police chief to his deputies. Karaoke hides (albeit briefly) the torture of one of the family’s hit-men. The women of the bar close their eyes as the violence begins; taking away the visual means it never happened, it cannot exist in this world without the visual proof, even in the eyes of law.
Julian’s attempted revenge gets him beaten to a pulp, leading to another cyclic cascade of events. His mother is killed in the cold hotel where she is staying but the arms again come back into play. Throughout the film, the edges of the screen have been telling the viewer since the beginning what will happen to Julian’s arms. The character himself has been hallucinating it happening since visiting the local entertainment. It’s ultimately fitting then for him to put his hand in the womb of his mother when finding her dead. He is finding the lost home he never really had, the place where he was almost aborted from. Julian doesn’t seem sad. Instead he begins to realise that none of his worlds were ever truly real. He escapes his current reality with his premonitions, his mother was never a loving parent, only a bully. Perhaps his life was always aborted.
This explains away his actions when exacting a final revenge on the police chief. He doesn’t go through with his mother’s intentions, going against his philosophical destiny and only allowing a henchman to kill the police chief’s wife/nanny before killing him as he is about to murder the police chief’s daughter. It only needs the final punishment for Julian’s actions to bring the sonata round to its conclusion but the inevitable loss of arms, that the film has been toying with persistently, is never fully shown. The forest may as well be another diversion, another day-dream. The credits role as the police-chief sings karaoke again, hiding any feeling under the colourful lies of the inane music and safe in the knowledge that there is no true forgiveness in the violent sonata of Refn’s Bangkok.