A few nights ago I went to see Only God Forgives, written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. On the surface this is a highly stylized, disturbingly violent story of revenge. Yet even then it is anything but straightforward. Unlike most revenge movies, which are shot from the point of view of someone seeking retribution from an evil individual or organization, this is shot from the opposing point of view.
After the father of a teenage girl kills the man who raped and slaughtered her, we discover that the person he murdered is actually the son of a powerful woman who runs an illegal drugs company. Upon hearing of her son Billy’s death, she travels to Bangkok (where the murder took place) and goes about seeking revenge. Two people were involved in the killing of her son and so she plans their murder: the father of the young girl and a police officer who provided the opportunity for the killing to take place.
We, the viewer,are placed into the disturbing point of view of the violent, drug dealing family who are seeking revenge for the killing of a psychotic child rapist and murder. In particular we see things from the point of view of Billy’s brother, a man called Julian who runs a boxing club in the city.
Interesting as this is, it is not the surface story that makes this film so fascinating, nor is it the impressionistic, almost dream-like, way that the story is told, or the rich and stylized tone it takes (all of which are mesmerizing), but rather the way that it delves so deeply into the realm of the unconscious, revealing hidden depths in a way reminiscent of Hitchcock and Lynch. For this is not really a story of revenge, but rather the story of a brother attempting to escape the suffocating over-proximity of his mOther.
In order to draw this out, I want to critically analyze the film through the lens of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Particularly using his categories of alienation, separation. psychosis, perversion and the Name-of-the-Father. Something that will involve shifting our focus from the explicit story (the imaginary level) to the underlying relations at work within the film (the symbolic level).
What we have here is a family made up of three: two brothers and a mother. The father is completely absent and, we later find out, was actually murdered by Julian. From early on we learn that both sons have a disturbingly close relationship to their mother, but this is manifest in two different ways.
Billy, the first born, is the mother’s favorite and we find out that they had a type of unbroken bond. From a Lacanian perspective we learn that alienation had not taken place between the two.
Alienation represents the first psychological break that one has with the mother, a break in which the child experiences a gap existing between him or herself and the mother.
This is the first role of the Name-of-the-Father, which basically describes that which gets in the way of the mother/child relation by saying “no” (this can also then be written as the No-of-the-Father).
It is obvious that alienation has not taken place between Billy and his mother through the way that she talks about him. Her first-born is described as that which completed her i.e. as the phallus for her. Indeed she even has a conversation in which she talks about the size of Billy’s penis, saying that it was huge in comparison to her other sons.
The problem is that alienation must take place or an individual will take up the structure of a psychotic; something that we see ecidenced in the way that Billy acts. The psychotic has not been able to gain any distance from the mOther and thus feels possessed by another, often hearing voices, seeing things and being possessed by an alien within.
In contrast to the relation between Billy and his mother, alienation has occurred for Julian, something that is evident in the somewhat disparaging way that she talks to him. She makes it clear that while Billy completed her, he does not. Yet this is also betrayed by the sexual relationship/desire she has for Julian and the way that she hints that he might be able to be what she needs. From a Lacanian perspective alienation can be said to have taken place (Julian experiences a distance from his mother) but separation has not.
Separation is the second role of the Name-of-the-Father, namely the point when the child learns that the mother has other desires outside of her desire for the child. This is the point when the gap that comes into being between the child and mother (alienation) is redoubled and the child discovers this gap as also existing within the mother.
In other words, the child discovers that s/he cannot plug up the lack in the mOther, because the mOther is by nature a lacking being. Up until then the child thinks that s/he can get absolute pleasure through being the object of the mother’s absolute pleasure. But the discovery that the other can’t have absolute pleasure means not only 1) experiencing the acknowledgment that the other is castrated (without that which can give them absolute pleasure) but also 2) experiencing/accepting ones own castration (cannot gain that pleasure by being the object of the others pleasure – an excessive pleasure called jouissance).
If this does not happen then the child is caught in perversion, which is the place where one gets their pleasure by imaging that they are the object of the others pleasure. This is obviously the position of Julian who is alienated from his mother, but not separated from her. For instance, he attacks his partner for asking why he allows his mother to dominate him and he engages in a form of voyeuristic sexuality in which he is tied to a chair and watches as a woman touches herself. Here his sexual pleasure is found not in his own sexual orgasm but in gazing at a woman who is able to gain pleasure while being looked at by him (he is the object of the other’s pleasure).
For the one caught in perversion the unconscious desire is to find someone (or something) that can enact the Name-of-the-Father, i.e. that which will bring separation from the over-proximity of the mOther. Someone that they will resist at a conscious level. His biological father cannot fulfill this role because he killed him, thus preventing him from fulfilling the role. He was too strong for his father and thus missed out on the possibility of his father helping enact the separation.
In the film itself the police officer is the one who might be able to fulfill this role for Julian. In a similar way to the time when Julian fought (and killed) his father, he gets into a situation in which he is to fight the officer. But now something very different takes place. Instead of killing the officer Julian is beaten to a pulp.
This is not a standard fight in which Julian simply loses through being out skilled and out maneuvered. He is a boxer who is younger and stronger than the officer. While he might well have lost even if he didn’t want to, this fight is a total whitewash, leading the viewer to conclude that both people wanted him to lose. Julian needed to be beaten because he needed to reverse what happened with his father and find someone strong enough to break his bond with the mother. The officer is then experienced both as a threat to be done away with and as a possible candidate to bring about freedom. Hence he must try to beat him up and yet hope to fail.
This happens and then the police officer goes on to kill his mother (not before his mother pleads to Julian to protect her). But this is not the end, for Julian goes to the corpse of his mother, slices it open and places his hand inside her: he must experience for himself the truth that there is a lack in his mother.
But to be free he must not simply experience his mother’s castration; he must also embrace his own. So then in a brief scene we see the police officer who killed his mother slice off Julian’s or hands with a ceremonial sword (a sword which is referenced throughout).
This sword is the device that effectuates the castration of both mother and son. For Julian to lose his hands is to lose that which represented the possible object that would make his mother whole (indeed the last thing she asked of him was to use his power to protect her). His hands were her weapons, they represented what she desired. He had to experience his hands letting him down, which he did in his attempt to kill the police officer, and now he needed to lose them so that he might (if even only for a moment) experience separation from his mother.
This article only touches on what I take to be the central insight of the film, but there is much more to explore. Also I should say that I don’t want to reduce the film to some crude psychoanalytic metaphor. The film itself is much more subtle, thoughtful and impressionistic than that. But what I do wish to draw out is the way Nicolas Winding Refn takes on what so many today refuse. What we witness in independent film making today is a (justified) rejection of transcendence above immanence. But this embrace of the “plane of immanence” (through a concentration on interesting dialogue, general ennui and the happening of nothing) misses the opportunity to explore and make manifest the transcendence within immanence i.e. the unconscious. This, for me, is what makes Only God Forgives such an important, fascinating and needed film today.