over the past few weeks, many critics have decried that ‘only god forgives’ is typical postmodern trite - emphasizing style over substance; many claim that while the film is visually and technically beautiful it lacks content you can sink your teeth into.
as a challenge to these critics, i would say that great cinema achieves narrative through pure expression. in this sense, ‘only god forgives’ more than succeeds. it expresses itself just fine. in fact, i would say that most critics are mistaking a lack of expression for an overload of expression. certainly there is an air of mystery and disturbance throughout the film. but that simply means that more communicative and interpretive power is handed over to the viewer. it’s our job to take each block of meaning and construct something with it. for instance, are we to believe that ryan gosling’s julian is living in a dream or meditative state? or are we to infer that he possesses certain psychic inclinations as he seems to drift between dream and “reality”… and where characters melt in and out of the narrative frame? the film offers many questions, and gives few answers.
the interplay between revenge and mercy has strong symbolic and narrative currency in the film too. on one hand, you have julian, bound by duty and responsibility to his business and family to get revenge for the murder of his brother. but simultaneously, he only seeks revenge insofar as it equals the instigating act.
there is also an obvious unresolved oedipus complex on julian’s part. the way he interacts with his mother is very cold, yet intimate. the viewer is given tiny nuggets of information throughout as to his family’s past, but by and large we are left to guess and put the pieces together in whatever way seems logical. ultimately, the film seems to raise questions about the nature of experience - both past and present - and how it shapes or conditions our identity and actions.
surely though, film is a subjective art and individual taste can and will vary person to person. one thing is for sure, this film demands to be watched closely and multiple times to unravel it’s thick, and often opaque, narrative.