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Film as Art

Existential Violence and Karaoke: Re-evaluating Only God Forgives (2013)


Warning: This post will be filled with the occasional spoiler, so if you have yet to see Only God Forgives please don’t read this yet. If you have seen it, keep reading for my views on this interesting cinematic nightmare.

Possibly one of the most polarising films this year (maybe even the last few years), on second viewing Only God Forgives is one of the most beautifully soul destroying features of 2013. This is the second collaboration between director Nicolas Windin Refn and Ryan Gosling (after their seminal 2011 thriller Drive). Refn totally breaks expectations with and delivers neon-lit nightmare, full of fetishistic violence and uncomfortably seedy revelations – it’s a Greek tragedy by way of existentialism.

If I’m honest, when I first viewed Only God Forgives I was a little taken aback by how devoid of personality it was. If Drive was full of nods and references to 80s action film culture, but more of a mainstream Refn film, then Only God Forgives is the director back in his (un)comfort zone. I genuinely feel this is a film which transcends any form of critiquing as it’s more of an experience than a focused narrative.

The themes found in Jodorowsky’s body of work (existentialism, enlightenment, the different) and Anger’s visual flair are peppered throughout its brief running time. It’s an audio and visual assault on the senses which remains with you long after the last karaoke song. The most surprising element of it comes from the fact that Gosling really doesn’t have a lot to do. He’s merely window dressing to disguise the fact it’s all about Vithaya Pansringarm’s character Chang.

In Chang we have a possible reincarnation of One Eye from Valhalla Rising – a brutal force of nature and fiercely committed to a warriors honour. He seems almost mythical when he appears to characters, gliding through a shot as a sort of metaphysical presence – even his sword seems to hold otherworldly properties, appearing suddenly to dispatch betrayers. The hyped confrontation between Chang and Julian is even anti-climatic, further proving Chang’s god-like status. Not once does Julian land a single punch on him, losing spectacularly against his calmer, more skilled opponent.


Most shocking of all is Kristin Scott Thomas’s portrayal of Julian’s mother – Crystal. She’s half Lady Macbeth, half abusive mother – the dinner table scene is a particularly disturbing insight into her twisted mentality. The implied nature of her incestuous love affair with her late son is enough to make the viewer’s skin crawl. Her nonchalant way of describing the sibling’s penis size is as disturbing as when the violent acts unfold during the course of the film.

It’s far from easy viewing at times, yet the more I’ve revisited (up to 2 re-watches in 2 weeks now) it just becomes better each time. It certainly feels closer to the work Refn has previously done with the exceptional Pusher trilogy, but removed far enough from it to be its own uniquely twist beast.

Again composer Cliff Martinez (Drive) provides an audio assault that moves from Dream-like and then right through the musical spectrum, only allows the film to have an even more nightmarish dream quality.

Be it the fact I wasn’t in the best frame of mind during my first viewing or I just wasn’t in the mood for its now in my Top 5 releases of this year. With Only God Forgives Refn has crafted a thriller that not only punches the gut, but thrusts its hands into you and twists your insides. This is film as a piece of art, beautiful, brutal, emotionally twisted and possibly even better than Drive.

How did you find Only God Forgives? Was it interesting and subversive or full of art-house pretentiousness? Feel free to comment below.


2 thoughts on “Existential Violence and Karaoke: Re-evaluating Only God Forgives (2013)

  1. It’s a very disturbing film. Main thing that freaked me out is the hand in the womb.

    Posted by runningforisabel | December 9, 2013, 4:37 pm
  2. It’s a very disturbing film. Main thing that freaked me out was the hand in the uterus.

    Posted by runningforisabel | December 9, 2013, 4:32 pm

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December 2013
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