And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

Matthew 5: 30

In many ways, Only God Forgives (2013) is a very difficult film. But when something is difficult, even though we loath to admit it, it usually has something to teach us, and this is certainly the case with Nicolas Winding Refn’s newest release.

While Drive (2011) – Refn’s last film – and Only God Forgives are very different films, at least in terms of context, plot development, and narrative structure, it is also true they are strikingly similar. This is due not only to Refn’s overall directorial sensibilities but also to Ryan Gosling’s presence in both, whose taciturn, tough-guy personae can be thought of as psychological radicalizations of Steve McQueen’s portrayal of Frank Bullitt (Bullitt 1968) and “Doc” McCoy (The Getaway 1972), not to mention Junior Bonner (1972).

Contrary to what the majority of critics have said, Gosling’s minimalist performance in both films evokes an inner world of torment most actors can’t convey with the best dialogue and a full range of available emotions. In fact, immersed as it largely is in the luridly lit Bangkok night, and coupled with its dreamlike pacing and surrealist edge, the film is arguably an extension or externalization of Julian’s (Ryan Gosling) tortured psyche. In this way, the viewer too is caught in a liminal space where appearances are deceiving and symbolism is rampant. It’s no coincidence then that Julian’s split physical experience of living in Thailand as an expatriate parallels the surrealistic, psycho-emotional terrain of the film as we follow his angst-ridden, guilt driven conscience, his searching eyes, and his unspoken yearn or forgiveness.

In the face of its surrealism and symbolic overlay, Only God Forgives does have a structure, spare though it may be, and it does follow a minimalist sequence of events. On the level of appearances then, we know that Julian and his brother Billy (Tom Burke) operate a Thai boxing club as a front for a narcotics business overseen by their crime boss mother-from-hell, Crystal (Kristen Scott-Thomas), who lives in the United States. When Billy, in a drug and/or alcohol, rage-induced stupor, murders a young prostitute in cold blood, it sets off a chain of violent events that starts with Billy’s own murder, and ends with Crystal herself being killed when she arrives in Bangkok to set things right. But in a sense, the story itself is merely an occasion that allows the relationship between Julian and “Chang” – the police lieutenant in charge of the investigation, named only in the production notes – to stand out in bold relief.

In keeping with its highly stylized world, Only God Forgives is a film rich with symbolism, and this is part of the reason why it resists a straightforward interpretation, and certainly why it’s easy to dismiss and even easier to ridicule. And that’s precisely what the masses and critics have done. But to be fair, the very fact that Refn’s goal was to make a “fight film” is not only misleading but extremely ironic because, let’s face it, Only God Forgives is a far cry from your standard genre piece. Even in the face of its brutal violence, I would go so far as to suggest that the heightened, highly symbolic character of the movie make it an anti-fight film, and a highly subversive one at that. Indeed, in the hands of Refn it becomes a very smart critique of violence, particularly male violence.

When one considers that a sword is the first image the viewer sees, and how it is wielded throughout by the “hand of God” (Chang), we realize that it is also a (very phallic) symbol of male aggression, representing a world where one does not turn the other cheek, but rather repays violence with violence by violating and penetrating the other. When one further considers the many scenes in which Julian’s hands are on display, we see the inextricable linkage between them and the sword, not only as symbols of brutality and retribution but also of the paradoxical human need for forgiveness as a way beyond the razor sharp, hard edge of the law construed as justice.

For example, early on we see Julian look reflectively at his open hands as he then clenches them into fists; and then under the watchful eye of a golden statue made in the image of his nemesis, he imitates the fighting stance that symbolizes the film’s central conflict. Later when he attempts to wash his hands, the water turns into blood symbolizing his inability to cleanse himself and be free from his ever-present guilt.  Moreover, among the many Oedipal touchstones in the film we hear Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristen Scott-Thomas) later confess to one of Chang’s emissaries that Julian “killed his own father with his bare hands.”

In addition, the fact that Julian’s brother Billy beats a number of women with his fists and then proceeds to rape and kill a child prostitute highlights precisely what is at issue in the film, and not only how it connects with the violent back story of the two brothers, but also how the former internalizes violence, and the latter externalizes it. While brutal scenes in fact abound, I maintain that Refn does not valorize violence, but rather, recognizes the world as a violent place, depicts it as such, and employs it in the service of his critique.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, when one considers the central “fight” scene between Chang and Julian, at least two things stand out. Firstly, Julian’s desire to fight Chang is rich with symbolism, especially since the latter is a figure meant to represent God throughout the film. On my reading, the fact that Julian wants to fight God is certainly symbolic of his anger, but it’s also a symbol of his need for forgiveness. Consistent as it is with an “eye for an eye” religious economy of investment and return, we then watch Julian, in an exercise of extreme purgation, get pummelled by “God” as a way to purge and purify himself. Secondly, the very fact that Julian, accomplished fighter that he is, does not land a single blow, undercuts the western demand for vengeance through bloodletting, and in turn robs us of the catharsis it holds out.

At the centre of the film’s violence is Chang, who moves in and through the mayhem with the eerie poise of a spirit not quite connected to the material world. As a god-like figure who metes out his own unique form of justice, the film not only brings to the fore questions of the law, crime, and punishment as they relate to love, guilt, and forgiveness, but also to the connected question of justice and how/why it does or doesn’t mediate between these two economies. In these terms, Only God Forgives becomes a meditation on violence, guilt, and the possibility of forgiveness, specifically as it concerns Julian and the near palpable need to forgive himself, his brother, and his mother, not to mention his need to be forgiven by God. That Chang haunts Julian’s physical, emotional, and existential landscapes from the very beginning, as the latter then pursues the former, culminating in the fight scene mentioned above, nicely depicts this need.

It’s important to note that while we witness acts of extreme brutality at Chang’s hands, the film gives ample evidence that he is a peace-loving man; and we see this not only when he interacts with his daughter, but also with his emissaries, especially when he sings to them almost as a way to cleanse himself after every act of sacrificial bloodletting. If it’s true that Chang is capable of unspeakable violence, it seems clear he employs it in order to achieve a larger sense of judicial balance in the community, and often as an object lesson that women and even crippled children are not exempt from witnessing. Interestingly enough, the violence on display appears neither right nor good, but necessary in order to stem the violent tide that would otherwise wash goodness away.

A benevolent reading of the film would suggest that in the face of its tension filled, inherently violent, irreconcilabilities, Refn does recognize the need for love and forgiveness, even if you have to shed blood for them, and he does point toward that possibility, particularly near the end of the film. In one of the most significant but perplexing, and certainly disturbing scenes, Julian comes across the lifeless body of his mother (killed by Chang) and we watch with horror as he takes a sword, slices into her stomach, and then slowly inserts his open hand into her “womb”, as it were. In my view, this is a stunningly profound gesture as Julian finds his way back to the beginning, before his time in hell, and frees his mother as a step toward being free himself through the rebirth that comes through forgiveness.

In a final scene, we find Julian back at the brothel, where his girlfriend Mai works, sitting alone on a corner couch as if to say, “it is finished”. We then watch as Chang drifts into the room and slowly sits down diagonal to him. And as he looks at Julian we see a calm come over his face, the kind of peace we saw only when he was with his daughter or singing to his friends. Knowing that in a previous scene Julian saved Chang’s daughter from being killed by his mother’s edict, we have a distinct sense that, indeed, it is finished.

Significantly, Refn immediately cuts to the second last scene that on my reading is the symbolic highpoint of the film, one that represents new beginnings for Julian and the possibility of forgiveness. In an almost Edenic setting, sunlit and lightly populated with trees, we see Julian standing with arms stretched out in front of him, ready and waiting for Chang, poised beside him, to execute his familiar form of justice. In slow motion, we watch as he raises his sword above Julian’s arms, and on the downward arc Refn cuts to the final scene where Chang is singing to a rapt audience at his favourite Karaoke club.

As it was in the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 when the angel of God stays the patriarch’s hand, thus preventing the sacrifice of his son, so too Refn stops the scene just before the shedding of blood. If, as some biblical commentators surmise, that stopping Abraham from sacrificing Isaac is the focal point of the story (and not his willingness to obey God without question as a sign of true faith), then perhaps the final scene, as a picture of forgiveness, is also a critique of any system, political, religious, or otherwise, that demands the spilling of blood in the name of justice, or in the name of God.