Recently I rewatched Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. It’s a very divisive movie, the critics’ review at Rotten Tomatoes is around 50% lmao. But I found it to be quite intriguing.

First a brief recap for those who haven’t seen the movie or forgotten: Julian—played by Gosling—runs a boxing club in Bangkok as a front for his drug business. He and his mother Crystal get caught up in a turf war with the local police—especially an oddball sword-weilding detective—when Julian’s older brother rapes and kills a local prostitute. The cycle of violence quickly escalates and finally results in Crystal’s death and Julian’s hands getting chopped off.

At it’s core, it’s a deeply moralistic tale which hammers in: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The name of the movie is a direct reference to this. Two characters even verbalize this at different points in the movie. The mobster who planned the hit on the cops says that he’s ready for the consequences for what he did, and Crystal towards the end also accepts that she fucked up and she’s due for the consequences.

Only God forgives, in our mortal plane there’s no forgiveness for violence. Interestingly, the detective is almost an agent for a violently retributive God, he doesn’t have any real personality other than that.

“Do you know who he is?”
Julian nods.

As if he knows what’s coming for him. Judgement, from God.

Is the detective an agent of God, or even God himself? Well he doesn’t forgive, and apparently God forgives. This aspect of the detective character seemed to be badly fleshed out to me, there are mixed signals about his true nature. In the movie’s defense, we do get a brief scene where he’s shown to be human: when he meets his daughter at home, and it’s implied that he’s a single parent who’s affectionate towards his child.

Julian on the other hand, is a mortal man who’s confused as to what he should become. He looks at his hands at several points in the movie, once he washes them and sees blood, and he keeps dreaming of the detective coming one day and chopping his hands off. We later learn that he’s a drug dealer, so he knows that he’s a sinner, and he has to pay for it one day. But he has a conscience unlike his brother, so by the detective’s sense of morality he deserves only amputation, not death, which makes sense.

The movie also has lots of references to sexual trauma and incest. It’s overtly implied that Crystal has incestuous relationship with her sons, and she made Julian kill his father. All of this has made Julian sexually broken, as it’s apparent from his fetishes. When his mother dies, he makes a cut in her belly and inserts his hand in it, which is almost sexual in a grotesque way. This sexual theme of the movie seemed heavy handed to me.

Although the movie has its faults regarding plot and theme, it’s held up by its pacing, atmosphere and stylistic elements; as a result the final package is gripping and entertaining. The most interesting character is that of the detective, and his presence elevates the movie to a spiritual level.

Overall, I’ll rate this a 7 out of 10.