Understanding 'Only God Forgives' & Why It's a Masterpiece (Spoilers)
Nicolas Winding Refn's latest movie "Only God Forgives" has been almost universally panned by critics, who have called the movie slow, dull, ultra violent, and confusing. To be fairly blunt, most of these reviewers have jumped on the "hate" bandwagon that this film has produced with the hope of getting more hits, considering that this movie is in fact equal to it's predecessor "Drive" in terms of quality and is bound to be a future classic. Just think, "Taxi Driver" got booed at Cannes in it's day and it's hard to think of anyone who doesn't now consider it a masterpiece.
Hollywood of late seems content with pumping out bland, overly simplified movies that don't in any way challenge the movie goer. That's fine, but trying to compare a movie like "Only God Forgives" to usual summer blockbusters is the equivalent of comparing a five course meal at a classy restaurant to McDonalds; yes one is cheaper, faster paced, and more convenient but ultimately is flat, lifeless, and uneventful. Every year a movie like "Iron Man" or "World War Z" will come out, but I doubt that we'll see another movie like this one for a long time (well, until Refn decides to make another one that is).
One of the biggest criticisms of "Only God Forgives" is the lack of dialogue and central narration, which makes it hard for some people to follow. While there is a lack of central narration in the movie, the over abundance of powerful imagery helps to instead guide the story along. The key images to understanding the whole thing are the hands and the sword, both of which represent crime and ultimately punishment. These two images tell the story, and help to define Julian as a character.
Julian is an American running a Muay Thai boxing school (that's a drug front) in Thailand after leaving America years earlier. Julian's brother ends up raping a sixteen year old prostitute, who he murders, and is subsequently caught by a police officer named Chang. Chang fashions himself as the "Angel of Vengeance" and decides that the father of the girl should be allowed to kill Julian's brother. Chang then cuts the father's hands off as punishment for ever letting her become a prostitute, and the man is allowed to live.
Julian meanwhile, is tied to a chair by another prostitute, who commits sexual acts in front of him while he watches. His hands are tied down and he is not allowed to move. This is where the symbol of the hands comes keenly into play. Julian falls into a dream state while in the chair and walks down a hallway, where he enters an open door and is confronted by a vision of Chang, who then cuts his arms off. When Julian awakens from the dream, he heads to the bathroom to wash his hands, at which point he sees blood running off of them. It is clear that he feels guilt about a crime that he has committed with his hands in the past, and we later discover that this crime was the murder of his father, whom he killed with his bare hands (also paralleling how the prostitute's father killed Julian's brother, as he used his fists in that murder as well). Julian is haunted by his crimes and his past and feels that he cannot escape them. To make matters worst his mother, Crystal, shows up to force Julian to avenge the death of his brother.
Julian feels that his brother got what he deserved, but Crystal is furious, and Julian is possessed by a strange love of her that seems to control him. Julian finds the killer but lets him go after he finds that he has already been punished for his crimes. Julian is clearly a man who believes in justice, and from this encounter he learns that the "Angel of Vengeance" is not just something he dreamed about, but in fact a real entity. Julian's mother then has the killer assassinated, and Julian becomes furious, and attempts to kill the assassin, but is interrupted by the arrival of Chang and the police. Chang quickly realizes that Julian was not involved in the killing, and continues with his investigation. This is the first time the two meet face to face, and Julian's life is forever altered by the events.
Late at night, Julian sits in a nightclub staring at yet another prostitute, and falls once again into a dream like state and fantasizes violating her sexually (with his hands). Julian comes out of the fugue state and once again feels guilt for the killing of his father, but this time takes it out on a stranger, who offers him whiskey. Julian breaks the glass in the man's face and then drags him down the hallway. This is one of the only times we see Julian act out of emotion in the movie.
Crystal continues to orchestrate the killing of police without his approval, and ultimately she continues to belittle and crush Julian. Crystal asks that he go to dinner with her, and Julian asks a working girl, Mai, to join him. It's clear that he feels some kind of attachment to her ( he buys her a dress) but at dinner Crystal spits out several horrifying remarks about her. The dinner seems to hit home that Crystal is not a good person. Julian tells Mai that she can keep the dress that he bought her, but when she does not respond to him, he screams for her to take it off. This further pushes Mai away from Julian, the only kind woman in his life.
Crystal, Julian, and Mai all end up at a nightclub where Chang is, and Julian challenges him to a fight to avenge Billy, his brother. Chang is an experienced Muai Thai fighter, and Julian loses the fight badly. When Julian is on the ground, he looks up and sees Chang standing in the exact pose as the statue in the club that Julian worships, and Julian comes to a moment of revelation: Chang is the god that Julian wanted to worship all along.
After the fight, Crystal reveals that Chang knows that she put a hit on his head, and that he will come for her next. She asks Julian to defend her one last time, and this is where it becomes apparent that perhaps Julian had to kill his father because he found out about Crystal's sexual involvement with her children (none of this is ever directly stated, however) and he reluctantly agrees.
Julian and one of his henchmen head to Chang's house. Julians companion attempts to murder Chang's daughter. Julian guns the henchman down, thus sparing the daughter's life.
Meanwhile, Chang murders Crystal in her hotel room. Julian grabs one of Chang's swords from his house (believing it to be the source of his power) and heads to his mother's hotel, where he finds her dead. He then cuts her stomach open and sticks his hands in (in what might be one of the weirdest things ever in a movie). This symbolizes the fact that Julian believes that the guilt he feels that is attached to his hands is also attached directly to his mother, and feels that maybe putting her hands inside of her will erase the guilt. It does not, however, and Julian heads out to find Chang.
Julian stands in an open field, looking at peace with himself with his arms outstretched, and Chang, looking almost like a monk, readies his sword. Julian clenches his fists once more and looks down as his hands are shrouded in light. Chang swipes down the sword, slicing Julian's arms from his body. With the removal of his hands, his guilt is removed, and he can be at peace with himself again.
The movie ends with Chang singing "You're My Dream" by Proud at karaoke. The song is almost a lullaby, and it represents the fact that Julian's life is no longer a living nightmare. His sin is forgiven, he is redeemed, and he can move on with his life.
"Only God Forgives" is without a doubt one of the most dense movies ever made. Refn chose to abandon any conventional means of story telling here, and the results work wonderfully, unless you're a movie critic, at which point you probably hated it. Julian's redemption is a violent one, but it's clear in "Only God Forgives" that violence is rewarded with violence. This summary only covered the most basic elements of the plot, and the connections to classics like "Hamlet" and "Oedipus" are also there, as well as the Old Testament, with Chang in many ways representing God.
So, there you have it. See this movie before it becomes a future classic, and comment if you've seen it with your thoughts, whether you loved or hated it.