This may be one of the most powerful pieces of storytelling from indie Hollywood and European cinema. For example, within 31 minutes, the next three are magical to explicate the film's entire message. The parallels of today's consumer, debt driven society and the trap and failings of a nuclear family, which weakens the Man and destroys the Woman—it's all in Only God Forgives. New laws require, rightfully so, to be EQUAL and yet we most definitely are not. This story is about inequality, frustrated impulse, denied entitlement, and most importantly, being seen as inadequate in the eyes of God. This is director Nicolas Winding Refn's existential tale about the inability to fight God. The entire film speaks to us only in quiet movements and immersed visuals. It is all metaphor and symbology meant for our own inner revelations.
Ryan Gosling plays Julian, a lost, lonely and somber man that is trapped by his family. Kristin Scott Thomas plays his mother, a Lady MacBeth of sorts and in other ways—the Devil in the details. Her controlling words, her brooding sexuality, her attractiveness, her mannerisms, her forcefulness, her emotional blackmail... everything is a hold on Julian. These are allegories to the Greek classics of Homer and Oedipus, who slain his father and had sex with his mother (a reflection of today's weakness in men and the worship of the matriarch). There are metaphors here to the Bible and the Qur’an where the Pharaoh killed the men and spared the women. There are also parallels to the standard matriarchal society, which is embedded in modern man from his schooling and upbringing from the ideals of a post-Christian Society. At its mostly ugly and abused, the ideology is that women should hated (by misogynists) as well as men spreading hate from father to son and vice-versa. The Thai women in the story are treated as low class and of no value, which reveals a culture that degrades women, and in doing so, destroys man. Julian's mother compels him to evil acts, forcing him to avenge his brother, which causes more hateful thoughts. However, Julian does have a natural impulse to not obey her (because his brother was in the wrong), but this does not stop his mother from ridiculing him in an effort to motivate him to avenge the death of a family member. Characters are brought down through vile insults including a mother insulting her own son's manhood and referring his woman friend as a “c*m dumpster.” Julian's angry feelings are only shown through random acts of violence and verbal abuse. When he does not feel respected or loved, he is only allowed by this reality to express it through violence. His outward actions reflect his inward feelings. Julian's girlfriend, Mai, is so stunningly beautiful and yearning to be loved. Yet, his inability to love a woman is due to his guilt surrounding his controlling, deceitful, evil mother. Through imagery, we see the infantile bond where the film crosscuts from imagery of Julian wanting to touch Mai (and he can't in all cases) and to shots of his Mother suggesting her nearby presence as if guilt-ridden Julian was still suckling the breast... even in old age.
One brilliant aspect Nicolas Winding Refn brings to light in his storytelling is a clear motif to pornography and the results of which are the inability to form bonds of true emotional love; referencing a one-sided relationship (as also discussed in the 2013 film, Don Jon). "Porn Culture" is all over Bangkok and the Vegas-like neon lighting in the film's advertising, to the dress of the women, to the interior design sets of the strip shows—it is all part of the hellish trap that these characters have built for themselves. The aforementioned neon lighting, the sex shows, the strip joints, and the sinister Bangkok setting complement Julian's inner turmoil. The environment constantly changes on screen and it compels the characters to behave darkly in the dark atmosphere. There is also the attempt to prove one's manliness by fighting/training through kickboxing. A parallel to the UFC mixed martial arts craze of today. There is a further clash of culture occurring here between the Thai and the Americans, leading to suspicions, fighting, anger and greatly misunderstanding each other where the only system at use here is the absolution from debt. In fact, the word for debt in German is "schuld," which is also the equivalent word for "shame.” Every man here is in debt, thus lives in shame. In shame of their mother and in shame of God. In literal form, God appears in the story as a Karma-like peace officer who watches over everything and everybody. There are only two ways out of settling a debt or paying for a sin: death or the loss of a limb. The entire experience of the story centers around God and how people chase after forgiveness (the metaphor is literally shown in a pedestrian chase sequence) and how Julian strives to be forgiven by God.
Upon further examination, there are hundreds of parallels in this film that represent our daily lives. Just reflect on the character of Julian and hopefully the audience will be able to understand. Deep down, he keeps wanting to do the right thing and circumstances created by his mother make everything worse. The moral theme is that we are ALL born good, ALWAYS are inclined to do good, but our upbringing and our environment confuses us. Refn has made an extraordinary, experimental film here with the stillness and finely-crafted symmetry of a Stanley Kubrick film, coupled with the shadows and light of a Francis Ford Coppola film and a Joel Schumacher film. In fact, there are a lot of parallels to Schumacher's own Red Light District-themed works. This film is a wonderful example of hoping for God while lost in the dark.