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Film / Only God Forgives

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"Ladies, close your eyes. And you, gentlemen, watch carefully."

Only God Forgives is a 2013 crime film directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, starring Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas. While it's not a direct narrative sequel to Gosling and Refn's previous collaboration, Drive, this hasn't stopped many from seeing it as a Spiritual Successor of sorts — a theory that hasn't been wholly Outdated by Canon by Refn himself.

Julian (Gosling) is an American man who lives with his older brother Billy (Tom Burke) in Bangkok, where the Thai boxing club he manages is in fact a front for a drug-smuggling operation. One night, for unknown reasons, Billy rapes and brutally murders an underage prostitute. Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) a local cop who moonlights as a vigilante, arranges for the prostitute's father to beat Billy to death, setting in motion a chain reaction of revenge killings that eventually involves Julian and Billy's mother (Thomas), who heads the family's criminal business. Caught in the mayhem, Julian begins to seek a way out.


Shot on location in Thailand, the film takes great influence from the country's culture down to using the Thai language in dialogue and on-screen text.

...wanna trope?

  • A Father to His Men: The officers under Chang's command hold him in the highest respect.
  • Abusive Parents: When Crystal isn't viciously berating or otherwise humiliating Julian, she gleefully manipulates him into doing her bidding.
  • An Arm and a Leg: the father of the prostitute Billy kills loses an arm to Chang for his failure to protect his daughter. At the end, Julian offers his own arms to Chang as repentance, for the evils he and his family have committed.
  • Anti-Hero: Julian and Chang. Alternately, they could both be called Anti Villains.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "Wanna fight?"
  • Asian Hooker Stereotype: Referenced with aggressive sarcasm by Julian's mother, when Mai, his local girlfriend, introduces herself as an "entertainer".
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  • Assassin Outclassin': Chang does this when Crystal sends hitmen after him, killing one with a pistol and chasing the other one down to be interrogated.
  • The Atoner: Julian struggles with the guilt of having killed his father throughout the film, and one possible interpretation of the ending is him finally being forgiven.
  • Audible Sharpness: Chang's sword makes sheath-scraping noises when he draws it, despite the fact that he conjures it out of thin air.
  • Badass in a Nice Suit: Julian spends the later parts of the film in a fancy three-piece suit. He squares off against Chang after removing his jacket and rolling up his sleeves. However, he turns out to not be particularly badass, as his mother laments and his fight with Chang goes entirely in the latter's favor with Julian not landing so much as a single blow.
  • Bring It: After effortlessly manhandling Julian without so much as taking a formal fighting stance, Chang puts up his guard when Julian stands to face him again.
  • Body Motifs: Hands. Chang cuts off Choi's hand as punishment. Julian keeps staring at his hands while slowly making a fist, and has visions of Chang cutting his hands off. He has his hands tied to a chair while watching Mai masturbate. Later one of Crystal's henchmen has his hands pinned to a chair in a similar position. Julian also fantasizes about pushing his hand through a curtain and having Mai fondle it between her thighs. At one point he washes his hands and has a vision of the water becoming blood. It's implied that this is guilt over having beaten his father to death. In the end, Chang cuts his hands off for real.
  • Boom, Headshot!: Chang nails one of Crystal's assassins with one in the restaurant shoot out.
  • Bruiser with a Soft Center: Chang unwinds by singing love songs in his favorite bar, and happily plays with his young daughter in his spare time.
    • Also, Julian. Despite his violent, brooding, dysfunctional nature, he appears to privately desire a normal romantic connection with Mai.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Crystal's gang decides to get into a war with the godlike vigilante cop Chang. It ends badly for them.
  • Children Are Innocent: Chang's daughter is a sweet, gentle girl who imagines a world where her stuffed animals can solve their conflicts by talking things over.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Crystal's lieutenant suffers one from Chang in what is one of the film's most controversial scenes, involving the impaling of his hands and thighs, both his eyes being gouged out, and the insertion of a blade into his ear.
  • Covers Always Lie: A number of DVD covers and posters feature Julian in a boxing guard, seeming to imply that he is some kind of expert bare-knuckle fighter. In reality his only fistfight in the movie is a Curb-Stomp Battle where he is utterly humiliated by Chang.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Julian is on the receiving end of one from Chang.
  • Cycle of Revenge: Essentially the entire plot.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Julian hires Mai to masturbate in front of him while he is bound to a chair, apparently as part of some unhealthy aversion to real sexual contact.
  • Dedication: The film is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Julian thoroughly humiliates himself in front of Mai, and she abandons him.
  • Disposable Sex Worker: The teenage prostitute whom Billy murders in an apparently gratuitous act of sadism.
  • Dream Sequence: Several scenes depict Julian either daydreaming, hallucinating or experiencing premonitions of some kind. These instances contain not only allusions to Julian's past and personality, but prophetic scenarios in which Chang appears from out of the shadows with his sword and cuts Julian's arm off. Refn covered very similar ground in Valhalla Rising.
  • Drone of Dread: The parts of the score that aren't soft karaoke music.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Billy goes to a brothel and specifically asks for a 14 year old. When the owner explains that he has none on offer, Billy demands to rape his daughter, and when the owner refuses, Billy violently attacks him and the women.
    • Chang finds the father of the girl Billy raped and murdered, and allows him to take his own vengeance on Billy. After that, Chang takes the father out to an isolated area, berates him for allowing his daughter to become a prostitute, and slices his hand off as punishment.
    • Crystal verbally abuses a hotel clerk for not immediately having a room ready. When she first meets Julian, she grabs his ass suggestively, and then chews him out for not avenging Billy's death. When Julian explains that Billy raped and murdered a 16 year old, she blandly replies "I'm sure he had his reasons".
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Played with. Crystal's love for Billy doesn't make her any more sympathetic. Julian seems to have hated his brother, and his love for his mother is unhealthy at best.
  • Evil Matriarch: Julian's mother, Crystal.
  • Expy: Chang to One-Eye, Julian to Tony.
  • Extreme Mêlée Revenge: Chang allows the father of the girl Billy murdered to do this.
  • Eye Scream: Crystal's lieutenant gets his eyes gouged out by Chang.
  • Flat Character: None of the characters really have much of a personality aside from being violent remorseless assholes.
  • Freudian Excuse: This is the source of most Julian's and Billy's mental problems.
  • Friend to All Children: Chang. He maintains a healthy, loving relationship with his young daughter, and later spares a criminal's life when he sees that the man has a disabled son.
  • Gainax Ending: Julian seemingly gets his hands cut off and... Chang sings karaoke.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: A family trait for Crystal, Billy and Julian, who all explode at the slightest inconvenience. Crystal blasts a hotel clerk with a cold, condescending speech for not having her room ready. Billy assaults a pimp because he won't let him hire an underage prostitute. Julian throws a glass in a man's face, punches him to the ground and drags him away by his mouth because the man interrupted his brooding to offer him a drink.
  • Hammerspace: Chang can summon his sword from thin air by reaching behind his back and drawing it. It even makes scraping noises, as if it's being drawn from a sheath.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Julian.
  • Hero Antagonist: Chang is a particularly brutal one. Unless you believe him to be the main character.
  • Idiot Ball: In spite of being a ruthless drug queen who apparently realizes that Chang will be gunning for her soon, Crystal just hangs around her hotel until Chang arrives to execute her.
  • Incest Subtext: Played for absolute creepiness. When they meet, Julian's mother pretty much gropes him and later claims Billy was better endowed.
  • Invincible Hero: Chang, if you consider him the hero. He's unstoppable and infallible.
  • Jerkass: Julian's mother Crystal is an arrogant, foul-mouthed, racist, manipulative monster of a woman. His brother Billy, even discounting his brutal rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl, is a condescending jerk to the fighters he and Julian manage. Julian himself (to a smaller extent) has a Hair-Trigger Temper and takes out his anger on anyone in his way.
  • Judge, Jury, and Executioner: Chang dispenses his own justice upon Bangkok, going as far as to personally execute people with a sword.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • In his limited screen time, Billy does just about everything he can to let us know that he's a worthless human being.
    • To a smaller extent, Julian has 2: when he attacks the patron, and when he chokes Mai, yelling at her to take off her clothes.
  • Knight Templar: Chang, who personally punishes everyone in his jurisdiction who runs contrary to his personal set of laws.
  • Machete Mayhem: Chang wields a parang, a kind of silat machete originating from Indonesia to mete out bloody retribution.
  • Malicious Misnaming: Julian's mother keeps pronouncing Mai's name "May", in an obvious show of disrespect.
  • Master Swordsman: Chang is a master with his parang, which he can conjure out of thin air.
  • Mind Screwdriver: The film isn't completely impenetrable. Interviews with Refn and the original script helps clear up what exactly the movie is going on about.
  • Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow: Played with. Julian and Mai's relationship is purely a business transaction. Both parties may want something more, but Mai is not impressed by Julian's submission to his monstrous mother and subsequent bullying of her. After Chang handily beats Julian, Mai leaves him permanently.
  • My Beloved Smother: From their very first scene, the power dynamic between Julian and his mother is obvious, with Julian being basically his mother's servant.
  • Neon City: The film was noted for going to town with neon. (One critic described it as an incoherent "neon-dunked nightmare", which was apparently meant as praise.) The city in this case is Bangkok, which (at least for the main characters) is depicted as depraved and brutal.
  • Noble Demon: Julian is a pretty noble one, though it helps when you're being compared to people who've long leapt over the Moral Event Horizon. Ok, he is a drug running fight fixer who violently takes out his frustrations on anyone within his general vicinity. But he still has the decency to disapprove of his brother's actions, let the killer of said brother go after learning it was justified, and save the remaining member of the family he was ordered to reluctantly kill.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Julian's "fight" with Chang almost instantly turns into a laughably one-sided battle where Chang effortlessly pummels Julian who fails to land even a single hit.
  • Not So Stoic: Julian is defined by his stoic, aloof nature — which makes its sudden break after his and Mai's dinner with his mother all the more shocking. He pins Mai to a wall and chokes her when she asks why he tolerates such abusive behavior from his mother, and screams at her to take off her dress.
  • Oedipus Complex: Big time. There's some serious sexual tension between Crystal and Julian right from her first arrival, which is made overt when she starts caressing his bicep. In a later scene, she talks about the comparative penis sizes of her two sons. To top it off, we learn that Julian killed his father.
  • Out, Damned Spot!: Julian is distant and sullen, given to staring at his hands, which he slowly turns into fists. At one point he runs his hands under a faucet, but the faucet spews out blood. This is implied to be guilt over beating his father to death.
  • Pædo Hunt: Billy is a serial rapist with a preference for teenage girls.
  • Paralyzing Fear of Sexuality: Though it's shown multiple times that Julian wants to have sex with Mai, he refuses to let himself do so. This is most likely the result of a lifetime of sexual and emotional abuse from his mother.
  • Parental Incest: It's heavily implied that Crystal has had sexual relationships with both her sons. She notably fondles Julian on several occasions.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Chang brutally punishes people who cross his moral lines.
  • Physical God: One interpretation of Chang that is supported by Word of God. Notably, when Chang is pummeling Julian, the camera frequently cuts back to a large religious statue featuring a Thai boxing warrior.
  • Police Brutality: Chang, though fairly sympathetic, is not above brutally punishing and showing callousness towards relatively innocent people if he thinks they're partially to blame for a crime.
  • Professional Killer: Crystal hires a few to go after Chang. Big mistake.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Billy, and to a lesser extent Julian. While Billy comes across as a spoiled brat who explodes with anger when denied what he wants, Julian is more of a Shrinking Violet who can't do anything without his mother's permission.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Crystal wants Julian to go on one. Julian is less than enthused at the prospect. Chang wages a perpetual one against anyone who commits crime in Bangkok.
  • Right Through His Pants: We're told that Billy raped and murdered a prostitute, but when we see her bloody body, she's still wearing underwear.
  • Scenery Porn: Neon lighting, often monochromatic, and extremely overwrought decorations in the various high-class night clubs.
  • Serial Rapist: Apparently Billy's preferred means of recreation in Bangkok.
  • Signature Style: Refn's stamp is certainly on the film. Many scenes are bathed in a single color of light, usually red, of which the colorblind Refn is particularly fond. Extensive use of Silence Is Golden was also used in Drive and Valhalla Rising. And of course, sudden bursts of graphic, nauseating violence.
  • Silence Is Golden: A recurring trait of Nicholas Winding Refn's films. Most characters have only a handful of lines.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Julian's mother Crystal has an extremely foul mouth.
  • Smug Snake: Julian's mom is all around slimy, rude and smug to anyone she has power over, but becomes utterly terrified the moment she believes someone is a genuine threat.
  • Something Else Also Rises: When Julian is watching Mai sit in a brothel and fantasizing about touching her, the camera prominently focuses on his hands and his crotch.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Chang's signing a Thai love ballad is intercut with his torturing Crystal's right hand man to death.
  • Spiritual Successor: Shares a lot with Refn's previous films Valhalla Rising and Drive (2011) as well as Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence.
  • The Stoic: Both Julian and Chang let their actions speak, instead of their facial expressions.
  • There Is No Kill like Overkill: The hitmen's plan to take Chang out involves riding up to a restaurant he's dining at and killing everyone inside with Uzi fire. Needless to say, Chang isn't pleased.
  • Tranquil Fury: Even when infuriated by the atrocities criminals commit, Chang keeps up his calm demeanor.
  • The Unfavorite: Julian, which his mother says right to his face.
  • Vigilante Man: Chang.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: In a less usual example, the son, Julian, is yearning somewhat for his mother's approval.
  • Wouldn't Hurt a Child: Julian, leading to his Heel–Face Turn.