Q: What the fuck did I just watch?
A: The cinematic equivalent of vegemite. Chances are, you either loved it, or you hated it.
Q: Um...So what was it actually about?
A: Only God Forgives is a movie that you're meant to experience rather than think too much about. It's not really about anything. Anyone who tries to tell you that you're "not smart enough to get it" is a liar (and a douchebag.) There's nothing to get.
Director Nicholas Winding Refn has described it as a fairy tale, and it operates on that kind of logic - it's just an ultra simple story about ultra simple emotions like love, loyalty, hate and revenge. The film's not a riddle meant to be unravelled. It's meant to sock you right in the guts. Whether that makes it pretentious or ground breaking is up to you.
Q: Why was it so violent?
A: That kinda relates back to the question above. The movie is a visceral experience - it's an emotional tale, rather than an intellectual one. Violence is the quickest and most powerful way to elicit an audience response. We have an immediate sub-conscious reaction to images of a guy getting his arms cut off, and the sub-conscious is where this film lives and breathes.
The Brothers Grimm did the same kind of thing. A lot of those early fairy tales are actually really bloody - they're primal, taking place as they do in a dog eat dog sort of world. They're about fear and pain: emotions that are completely base, and instinctual.
The movie's actually not quite as violent as people think, either. Sure, it's bloody, but it's not as hardcore as a lot of more conventional Hollywood movies like Inglorious Basterds - the only difference is, in Inglorious Basterds the violence was depicted as morally justified. It was Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, or in this case Brad Pitt vs. The Nazis. That kind of violence is what we like: it makes us feel less uncomfortable when the director tells us exactly who we're supposed to hate, and then shows us that hated person getting riddled with bullets.
A film like Only God Forgives never justifies the violence morally. Billy, the older brother of Ryan Gosling's character, is not a good guy - pretty much all we see of him before he dies is his rape and murder of an under age prostitute. As a result, we don't feel particularly good when Billy's brother, Julian, starts slaughtering people to get revenge. It's not the kind of violence that we can subconsciously enjoy - these are not very pleasant people doing not very pleasant things to other not very pleasant people. That's where the discomfort of the movie really lies: not in the violence.
Q: Are you hating on Tarantino now?
A: Not at all. I really enjoyed Inglorious Basterds It just works in a different way to Only God Forgives.
Q: Why did that Thai guy keep singing all the time?
A: Because, like violence, music is emotional, not intellectual. Music generates a response that we feel, rather than think a whole heap about. The singing gives us a primal, sub-conscious insight into the character of Lieutenant Chang rather than a more typical one.
Q: Why does Ryan Gosling's character barely talk?
A: Because he's not really a character. He's kinda like the Silent Stranger in Westerns - like Clint Eastwood, only even more simplistic and a lot less charismatic. You're not meant to get to know him. He's just meant to act as projected emotion.
Q: Why was Kristin Scott Thomas' character such a bitch?
A: Because again, she's not really a character. She's a creature of blood - both the blood that comes from the act of giving birth, and the blood that is spilt by those she commands. She's pretty Freudian, in a lot of ways - she's meant to be sexy but in a way that can be kinda disturbing.
Q: And why did Ryan Gosling stick his arms in her belly?
A: It's a summation of those two things: it's an act that is sexual, violent, and life-affirming all at once. It's penetrative, and it's bloody, but it's also the womb that he sticks his arms into. It's almost like he's re-establishing his entrance into the world.
Q: Why did Ryan Gosling get his arms chopped off at the end?
A: Again, you're not really meant to read too much into stuff like that. It doesn't happen for any particular reason - it's just meant to be primal, like a Renaissance era painting. Julian's arms have been established as instruments of violence, and at the end he sacrifices them. There's no real meaning to that - it's dream like logic.
Q: I can't tell...Do you actually like this movie?
A: I can't really tell either. It impressed me, and I respect it, but I definitely don't love it, and it's not the kind of thing I'll watch and rewatch obsessively.
In short, it's probably the movie we deserve, but not the one we need. (Nothing like ending on a Dark Knight reference, right?)