Why Refn’s ‘Only God Forgives’ is a Masterpiece.

Only God Forgives is Danish auteur filmmaker, Nicolas Winding Refn’s ninth feature, released in 2013.

It is a stylistic, metaphorical film which tells the story of a man named Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his reluctant search for revenge.

Set in Bangkok, Julian’s brother, Billy (Tom Burke), is killed by the father of a 16-year-old prostitute that Billy had previously violently murdered.

Their mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives in Bangkok to identify her son’s body and demands Julian finds the man responsible and make him pay for what he did- regardless of what Billy might have done.

Refn himself describes Only God Forgives as ‘a thriller produced as a western, set in the Far East and with a modern cowboy hero.’ (Jagernarth, 2012) He said it’s based on real emotions but set in a heightened reality. It’s a fairy tale.’ (Sullivan, 2012)

Gosling described the script as ‘the strangest thing [he’s] ever read, and it’s only going to get stranger.’ (Otto, 2011)

Strange, indeed.

But in that strangeness lies the reason I believe this film is a masterpiece.

In an age of blockbusters, artistic expression through terms such as intensified discontinuity (the stylistic use of non-linear, fragmented imagery and narrative), especially in mainstream cinema, is sparse.

Films are, nowadays, more likely to be franchised and few large scale, big-budget films dare take the risk of being unique.

However, there are a number of directors who chose to defy this assumption.

Refn being a prime example.

‘Refn’s films tell stories about the lives of misfits, gangsters, and obsessives, with honesty, human insight, and sympathy. For Refn, filmmaking should be an organic process.’ (Big Dracula Cinema, 2012)

He doesn’t use storyboards and opts to shoot his films in chronological order, resulting in a process of discovering the film as it happens, and stubbornly refusing to obey any genre conventions.

In using unconventional narrative and aesthetic technique, the conventions of Hollywood storytelling of cause and effect logic are replaced by a much different representation of spatial and temporal coherence.

His films are non-linear and fragmented to create images that are ambiguous and disorientating, existing in different layers of reality.

Even the characters narrating the story are unreliable and often losing their minds and control.

Only God Forgives has a hyper-real aesthetic, achieved through the use of intense, highly saturated coloured lighting.

Red and blue colouring clash against each other and mirror the narrative’s underlying motif of good versus evil; crime versus punishment.

Red is the colour of aggression and compulsion; it is powerful and can look like it is advancing towards us, manipulate the screen’s sense of space.

Blue is a non-dominant colour; it is quiet and aloof, usually connoting sadness as it is the coldest colour on the spectrum.

This sets up the visual warfare that mirrors the destructively violent yet quiet and guilty character psyche of Julian.

Much of Refn’s films utilise colour schemes in this way. These vibrant colours begin to play equally important roles as his characters do and often mirror their emotions.

He also uses lots of symmetrical framing and obscuring angles to portray the power or solidarity of these characters.

Most of the time the camera is static, opting ‘to tell the story in the composition of the shot, and cutting as little as possible.’ (Big Dracula Cinema, 2012)

This results in lingering shots that are usually unseen in mainstream cinema and leaves gaps in the narrative that the audience is left to fill in.

The camera merely observes as hideous crimes are committed, and much like the extras in the scenes, we are unable to move forward or intervene; only watch and pray for justice.

Refn, therefore, creates a sense of revisionist filmmaking and, as a result, there is a highly personal feeling in this film since ‘the viewers receive a strong connection to the protagonist, and they easily immerse themselves in the film.’ (Ahmed, 2012) 

The Julian Complex

The story of Oedipus:

Once upon a time, there was a King named Oedipus…

King Oedipus ruled over the city of Thebes, after running away from his home in Troy to escape a terrible prophecy that he would one day kill his father and then marry his mother.

Unbeknown to Oedipus, when he was born his real parents, King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes, had abandoned him on the side of a mountain, after hearing the same prophecy.

But baby Oedipus did not die on the mountain as they intended; he was instead found by a shepherd who gave the baby as a gift to King Polybus and Queen Merope who couldn’t have children.

So, in his very attempt to outrun the prophecy, Oedipus ran right back to his real parents, where he killed his father in a fit of rage at a cross road, and unknowingly married his mother, who bore him four children.

It was only when the shepherd was brought to the king for questioning does Oedipus realise what he’s done.

Guilt-stricken and betrayed, Oedipus orders his servants to bring him a sword so that he can cut out his mother’s womb in revenge and gouge out his own eyes, so he never had to look at his parents again.

Blind and alone, he exiled himself from the kingdom.

Poor Oedipus, admirably tried to outrun his fate but pitifully failed. 

Sigmund Freud- who named his Oedipus Complex theory after the character- argues it was inevitable for this to be his fate: ‘Every newborn on this planet is faced with the task of mastering the Oedipus Complex.’  Such is the nature of the universe, and it happens over and over again.

And Julian is yet another character struggling with this task.

Julian is a monolithic character who speaks very little throughout the film; opting to stand alone and observe rather than act.

But his presence and his expression always fill the scene, giving the sense of a character who is alluring and tender yet very brutal. 

His inner desires, which are often extremely violent and sexually charged, spill out into the narrative, showing his lack of control and understanding of the world around him.

This lack of understanding can easily be traced back to his mother; since the relationship that Julian has with her is undeniably oedipal.

Refn uses parallels and intercutting between Julian and his mother, Crystal, to hint at the incestuous relationship Crystal had with her sons, filling their scenes with uncomfortably sexual undertones.  

Julian, however, could never be the man Crystal wanted and couldn’t satisfy her the way his dead brother could. Her blunt, disturbing remarks during the dinner scene show that Julian could never live up to his brother, despite always being in competition with him.

And like Oedipus, when Julian finds her murdered body, he takes a sword and cuts open her womb, placing his hand inside. 

The image of hands is very prominent throughout Only God Forgives, as Julian is desperate to get them clean after committing the murder of his father; he too feels guilt-ridden and betrayed.

This also signifies, again like Oedipus, a terrifying sense that Julian cannot escape his fate.

The long peering shots and static camera, as well as frequent close-ups of his hands, create a sense of dread and places the audience as mere observers of the events on screen- who, like the characters, are unable to react or change the narrative that plays out.

Only God Forgives uses a slow, meditative narrative that cuts into time frequently.

It distorts reality as the shot sequences don’t necessarily make sense, dislocating the viewers’ sense of time and space.

Julian’s conscience frequently takes over the narrative, giving the audience a glimpse of another dimension; a dimension that is detached, confusing and trails the viewer in Julian’s nightmare toward his fate.

A fate that is inevitably going to be bloody and violent.

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