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CAA Cinema: Only God Forgives (2013)

I'm coming a little late to the Ryan Gosling fan club.  I'm still yet to watch Drive (2011)but I did watch Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond The Pines (2012) recently, which I enjoyed for what was quaint and reactionary about its macho romanticism and reverence for the motorcycle as the signifier of  uncomplicated masculinity and Thanatos made literal.  It comes as little surprise to me that Gosling is the straight man's crush du jour.  He is Brad Pitt's Tyler Durden to Edward Norton's average Joe. 

Ryan Gosling as the motorcyclist bank-robber in The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

Ryan Gosling as Julian in Only God Forgives (2013)

In all truthfulness, it wasn't Gosling's blank-faced, shell-shocked machismo that had me so transfixed in Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives - no, it was Kristen Scott Thomas's terrifying Crystal, the Gosling character's castrating, terrible mother, the monstrous feminine, the murderous MILF.   Like some oxymoronic light-source, Scott Thomas dazzles on screen with the blackest light, putting in a performance so potty-mouthed and hypnotic in its hatefulness, her turn as the stiff-upper-lipped, unlucky-in-love Fiona in Four Weddings and A Funeral is all but burned away.  Charlote Higgins of The Guardian agrees, describing Crystal as "a peroxided Clytemnestra of a character – trashy, American and emphatically nothing like the cut-glass-accented aristocrats [Scott Thomas] is most famous for playing." (Higgins, 2013).  Clytemnestra - the character from Greek legend namechecked by Higgins - was an adulterer who murdered her husband and his lover, plotted to commit infanticide, before being murdered by her own son - which gives you some idea of Crystal's moral compass and of the heightened, fable-like artifice of the film itself.

Kristen Scott Thomas as Crystal

In a previous CAA Cinema, I enjoyed joining the dots between the passive-agressive children of Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon (2009) and others of their filmic kind(er).  Haneke's depiction of morally-ambiguous children ghosted with antecedents, and Only God Forgives no less so, not with butter-wouldn't-melt demon seeds, but rather with spectres of other monstrous mothers.

Crystal resplendent in neon

Only God Forgives is a painfully beautiful Oedipal stew, a film conceived as if with the sole purpose of powering an entire generation's worth of dissertations and blowing the dust off rote Freudian theories made tick-box and bland by dint of over-familiarity.  The plot, such as it is, is simple: 

"Bangkok. Ten years ago Julian [Gosling] killed a man and went on the run. Now he manages a Thai boxing club as a front for a drugs operation. Respected in the criminal underworld, deep inside, he feels empty. When Julian's brother murders an underage prostitute, the police call on retired cop Chang - the Angel of Vengeance. Chang allows the father to kill his daughter's murderer... Julian's mother Crystal [Scott Thomas] - the head of a powerful criminal organization - arrives in Bangkok to collect her son's body. She dispatches Julian to find his killers and 'raise hell'."  

Thank you IMBD, but what this synopsis cannot convey is the film's Argento-like neon-hued beauty, its glacial, Kubrickian-pace and predominance of one-point perspective, its Lynchian recourse to uncanny tableaux of synthetic singing - or the violence.   Characters are sliced, diced, skewered and eviscerated - mostly at the hands of Chang's blade, a character so taciturn and silent-footed, his actual corporeal existence is debatable.

Only God Forgives

Suspiria, Dario Argento

Only God Forgives

The Shining, Stanley Kubrick

Only God Forgives

Blue Velvet, David Lynch

Predictably, Only God Forgives has been lambasted for its grue, though it pales into insignificance when compared to much in the gorn subgenre of film entertainment. (I stopped watching Saw 3D: The Final Chapter (2010) the other evening, drawing the line at the scene wherein one poor bastard had to pull a key out of some other poor bastard's stomach - the said key being attached to a fishhook at the time). The point about 'revenge movies' - of which Only God Forgives is an example - is that the 'revenge' tragedy is constitutionally a violent one. Violence is part of the syntax, not an addition somehow consonant with a new or especial decline in civilisation.  Consider John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (1612-13) or Cyril Tourneur's The Revengers Tragedy (1607) - or Hamlet - all  of them stories with multiple body-counts and a USP predicated upon the promise of on-stage violence.  Revenge narratives must always unravel in a denouement of spiralling violence - it's the way of things and it's moral too; violence begets violence, you see - that's the lesson. The format can't teach if the violence doesn't crunch.

It is a Crystal's quest for revenge following the execution of her son that propels the action in Only God Forgives (though propels may indeed be a poor choice of words in light of the film's supine pacing). Crystal is a crime world queen bee whose murderous wishes are carried out by male drones, which puts me in mind of one of cinema's other big bad mommas - maybe the biggest.

In common with Only God Forgives, the Alien series has always played games of Freudian I-spy, inviting audiences to join the psycho-sexual dots. The science-fiction franchise likewise shares with Only God Forgives the still-not-common spectacle of a narrative populated by subordinate men and dominant women.  It was with the introduction of the monstrous alien queen in James Cameron's superlative sequel, Aliens (1986) that the first film's fecund subtext ripened so deliciously. If Alien (1979) was a skewed exploration of our ambivalence for the messy business of reproduction and birth - phallic intrusion, offspring as parasite, human as host  - then Aliens boils down to the tooth and claw of matriarchy.  When Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) destroys the alien queen's brood in an explosive act of reprisal (the aliens had attempted to impregnate Ripley's surrogate daughter), the grudge-match that follows between the two mothers is bruising - and blissful in terms of pure cinematic spectacle.  From Aliens onwards, the sci-fi franchise is one continuous mediation on motherhood, which is why this viewer still derives such thematic pleasure from the later sequels that seemed to so disappoint everyone else. 

Ripley encounters the Alien Queen

Another bereaved mother with an unstoppable thirst for revenge sits at the heart of one of horror cinema's longest-running franchises.  As Casey Becker finds out to her cost in the opening ten minutes of Wes Craven's Scream (1996), it is Pamela Vorhees, not her son Jason, who is the lurking serial slasher in the original Friday The 13th (1980).  Mrs Voorhees is killing camp counsellors at Crystal Lake because, years earlier, another bunch of fresh-faced teens had been too busy screwing to notice her handicapped son drowning in the lake. The film's big reveal - that a woman is carving up young nubile bodies - is indicative of our near-invisible sexism.  The twist works because the film's penetrative crimes are signified throughout as uniquely male activity.  There is an implied masculinity to the murders and their methodology, what with the preponderance of hunting knives, axes and crossbows.  That a Mrs Voorhees is killing America's children surprises audiences in the final reel because we still assume that women are capable only of making lives, not taking them.

Pamela Voorhees from Friday The 13th

The monstrous mothers of Aliens and Friday The 13th are terrifying because they are implacable. These are primal crimes of maternal instinct, but this is but one element of Crystal's terrible allure in Only God Forgives.  For those keen to equate the severing of limbs with castration anxiety, Only God Forgives is a text-book case, but it's not Chang's blade doing the neutering - it's Crystal.  In one scene, Julian introduces his girlfriend to his mother and in a calculated attempt to emasculate her son, Crystal fixates on the appreciable size of his late brother's penis, using this totem of masculine superiority as a stick to beat him.  It is an exquisitely discomforting scene - for male audiences especially - and it crackles with Oedipal taboo, as we're encouraged to speculate darkly as to the exact boundaries between this sexualising mother-figure and her objectified sons. This scene echoes commensurate moments in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) when Norman's mother baits her son similarly - and always about his virility, his masculinity - and in this way Mrs Bates - the grand dame of castrating mothers - is going for the size of her son's cock too.

Norma Bates:  No! I tell you no! I won't have you bringing some young girl in for supper! By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap, erotic fashion of young men with cheap, erotic minds!

Norman Bates: Mother, please...!

Norma Bates:  And then what? After supper? Music? Whispers?

Norman Bates: Mother, she's just a stranger. She's hungry, and it's raining out!

Norma Bates:  "Mother, she's just a stranger"! As if men don't desire strangers! As if... ohh, I refuse to speak of disgusting things, because they disgust me! You understand, boy? Go on, go tell her she'll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with MY food... or my son! Or do I have tell her because you don't have the guts! Huh, boy? You have the guts, boy?


Norman Bates:  Now mother, I'm going to uh, bring something up...

Norma Bates: Haha... I am sorry, boy, but you do manage to look ludicrous when you give me orders.

Norman Bates:  Please, mother.

Norma Bates:  No! I will not hide in the fruit cellar! Ha! You think I'm fruity, huh? I'm staying right here. This is my room and no one will drag me out of it, least of all my big, bold son!

Norma Bates

In Only God Forgives' most startling and discomforting scene, Ryan Gosling's character - upon finding the slain corpse of his mother - opens up her belly and dips his fingers into the wound.  In earlier scenes, this same penetrative act has always been a sexualised one; we've seen Ryan get close to putting his hand between his girlfriend's legs, but never quite clinching the deal. This is a complex, disturbing synthesis of signs - and one best understood by looking at the language adopted by some heterosexual men for describing female genitalia - 'gash', 'slit', and 'axe wound'. Freudian thinking would argue that all this appalling wound imagery some men associate with female genitalia is further proof of  the prevalence of male castration anxiety; i.e. the thing they are most fascinated by is likewise the 'ground zero' of the thing of which they're most terrified; vagina as wound, the site of the missing, the hole where the pole once stood.  When Julian fingers his mother's wound, consummating an act he has previously been unable to complete with other women, we come to understand a little more about this family's dysfunction and the damage wrought.  That the wound is in the mother's belly just lays in another strata of symbolic disquiet.  It's like Julian can't believe he came from there.  For a moment it's like he wishes he could return. 

Only God Forgives has no love for women.  Refn's women are emasculating or they are vapid. They are proactive to the point of asphyxiation or as inactive as sex dolls.  So is Only God Forgives hateful and misogynist as some critics have suggested or is it film that takes misogyny as its theme?  For me at least, it chimed with what I've sometimes glimpsed in the sort of conversations men have with other men about women; a sort of tortured, fearful worship of the opposite sex - the 'can't live with them, can't kill them' vibe.  For all its artifice and stylised self-regard, Only God Forgives feels like a highly personal film and while we all know better than to reduce fiction to the veiled autobiography of its maker, I was reminded while watching Refn's film of what I know about another 'mother-hating' movie,  David Cronenberg's The Brood (1979).  The Brood has been described as Cronenberg's most autobiographical film, in that it was written during a custody battle for his child.  Samantha Eggar's mother character in The Brood is so self-absorbed, so self-entitling, and ultimately so abject in terms of blood and reproductive plumbing, that it is hard not to suspect Cronenberg of using this frankly rather revolting character to vent his anger and distrust for the opposite sex.

Samantha Eggar as Nola in The Brood

Finally then, what to make of Only God Forgives - a film awarded no stars and five stars, a pretentious film, a nauseating film, a beautiful film?  If I close my eyes, I can still see its imagery.  I've liked thinking about it much more than I enjoyed watching it.  There's something about the tone of it - its depiction of women and its depiction of men as depicted by a male director - that rings peculiarly true.  Only God Forgives, with its monstrous, castrating milf of a mother-figure and mute, muscled pin-up who is handsome yet neutered, is a full-blown, neon-hued crisis of the masculine; a film about men and what terrifies them.

Higgins, Charlotte, Nicolas Winding Refn says he made Only God Forgives 'like a pornographer', (Accessed 26/09/2013)


  1. Great read Phil, yet to catch the film, however there is something visually off-putting about the film which makes me want to see it. Drive was great, The Place Beyond The Pines was better - throw in some blood and gore with some freudian thinking, then it sounds like quite a film.

    1. Richie Rich! Great to hear from you! Yes - Only God Forgives has a very definite 'look' - but be prepared for the 'tableau vivant' style pacing and artifice. It's almost too artful!


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