The Bayley Film Club: Nicolas Winding Refn

Another week, another danish director. After Lars von Trier we pulled out of the bowl Nicolas Winding Refn. Both gentlemen are from Denmark, both are successful filmmakers with a strongly developed style, and both made it to our Bayley Film Club, and that’s about it for the similarities. Topics and execution in all five films (‘Breaking the Waves’, ‘The Idiots’, ‘Dancer in the Dark’, ‘Bronson’, and ‘Only God Forgives’) which we have taken under review, couldn’t be further apart.


Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Film 1: Bronson
Film 2: Only God Forgives



Author: Agsy E Drapinska

Anticipation: 5
Enjoyment: 4
Retrospect: 3
Score: 12

The best thing about ‘Bronson’ is the story. Charles Bronson, aka Michael Peterson, is one of the most famous British prisoners and he became so, because of his extreme violence. The role of Bronson was given to Tom Hardy who handled it with perfection, which doesn’t come as a surprise. 

This film is about madness, the risks of isolation, and violence – in an interchanging and continuously colliding order. ‘Bronson’ was shot in a thoughtful way, presenting Bronson’s madness as an art (so consciously chosen path) and himself as an artist. In many scenes, Nicolas Winding Refn used lights, angles, music, and perspective in a considerate way. His approach to filmmaking with an artistic twist is something I admire a lot in his work.

Bronson’ also opens the discussion about mental illness within the walls of prisons, raising questions such as: Is there enough room for sanity? And how to recognize someone’s losing it? These questions were troubling me while watching the film because Charlie Bronson is following some kind of logic in his behavior, but then again, is that enough to be claimed suitable for becoming part of the society again? I suppose you need to watch it and make up your mind individually :). 

Only God Forgives

Author: Agsy E Drapinska

Anticipation: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Retrospect: 3
Score: 11

The second film chosen for this week, after ‘Bronson’ (2008), is a more recent picture from 2013, ‘Only God Forgives’. For both of these, Refn features also as the writer, which is common for all of his films, except the most recognized one – ‘Drive’ (2011), the film that sky-rocketed Ryan Gosling’s career.

Only God Forgives’ is a story build around Julian Thompson (Ryan Gosling), a boxing club owner by day and a ‘respected figure of criminal underworld’ who runs a drug-dealing empire by night. The unexpected death of his brother, Billy Thompson (Tom Burke), begins a chain of events which consequences, cause suffering for all characters, in some cases paying the highest price.

The film is very artistic and full of symbolism. Beautiful scene settings and passings with the sound and light effects make a great impression and bind the motives together. In fact, sound and light seem to play a more critical role than characters, and the script itself does – Ryan Gosling speaks only 17 lines throughout the whole film.

The leading forces are the ones of morality, guilt, punishment, and revenge. The role of the devil is to bring justice upon the ones that disobey and is carried by a police officer. Lt Chang is the man who gets everywhere on foot and seems to be gifted with sixth sense or some kind of celestial-talent. He certainly acts with a strong belief of his own judgment, practically in a god-like matter. However, it is made clear that he is just a man, with a home and a family to look after.

So is he a god, the devil, or simply human with a god-complex?

We see him mainly bringing justice, in other words punishing the ones he decides to and in ways he sees fit. We never witness his forgiveness, so according to the title, he cannot be God. In fact, the only person showing mercy to anybody is Julian.

There are two reoccurring metaphors in the film. The first one is doors, a link to passing away, and therefore judgment and the always continued dilemma between good and evil. The second one – hands, including washing own hands as a symbol of removing guilt or acting in a higher purpose. Both motives, if we think about it, are strongly connected to the storyline and self-explanatory. However, near the end, we also experience a scene where Julian puts his hand into his dead mother’s womb, and this picture doesn’t necessarily fit. For some time I couldn’t wrap my head around it, trying to figure out, the meaning of it:

  • Does it show the depth of the psychological disturbance of the main character? 
  • Present how the wickedness of the mother-son relationship?
    Until I read, that this idea came from Mr. Gosling himself. So, no need to link it anymore, I guess.

Only God Forgives’ is not an obvious film, it requires open-mindedness, and constant focus from the viewer and even then it still can be confusing at times. Nicolas Winding Refn is juggling with symbols to pass a message and without some concentration, an afterthought, and deep consideration after watching – it is hard to appreciate the film. Which is reflected in the relatively low IMDB score that it has (5.7). I suppose that the question is, how much of a mental challenge you expect from a film? ‘It depends’, most people would answer. Well, if you are in the mood for something easy, better go for putting the ‘Lethal Weapon’ for the nth time, rather than reaching for ‘Only God Forgives’, cause you will only get annoyed, and I really think this film deserves a fair chance. 


Author: N A Tonge

Anticipation: 4
Enjoyment: 4
Retrospect: 4
Score: 12

Tom Hardy’s first lead role sees him play ‘Britains’ most notorious criminal’ in the 2008 biopic of Michael Peterson – better known by his ‘fighting name’, Charles Bronson. 

‘Bronson’ is the story of a bulging one-man army, who refuses to conform both on the outside and whilst in prison, and is determined to inflict as much anarchy as possible in the process. The character is programmed to cause chaos at any cost. Which includes spending the vast majority of his life incarcerated. 

‘Bronson’ is not an analysis of the prisoner’s psychology and neither does it seek to excuse his violent behavior on society. A short introduction to Peterson’s early life demonstrates a typical suburban family upbringing. He got into a few fights as a child, but he wasn’t ‘bad’ bad.

The excellent Tom Hardy effortlessly switches between softness and charm to explosive rage, as used with success in subsequent roles, e.g. Alfie Solomons in ‘Peaky Blinders‘. 

In off-plot monologues, Hardy addresses a theatre audience and expresses pride in his violent adventures, mainly when at the pleasure of her majesty.  

The throbbing techno soundtrack injects excitement into scenes including hostage situations, bare-knuckle boxing matches, and at one point, Bronson fighting a rottweiler. 

The character has comparisons with Mark ‘Chopper’ Read in Andrew Domink’s 2000 biopic. Both characters are narcissists, who crave recognition and are obsessed with infamy. Well, they have succeeded, with ‘Bronson’ providing a suburb account of a clearly unhinged, yet undoubtedly interesting man.

Only God Forgives

Author: N A Tonge

Anticipation: 3
Enjoyment: 3
Retrospect: 3
Score: 9

Following the stylish ‘Drive’ (2011) Ryan Gosling plays the role of Julian: a super-cool American drug-dealer, navigating the Bangkok underworld. 

Whilst not as plot-driven as ‘Bronson’ and to and extent ‘Drive’, Refn carries forward the edgy atmosphere, kitsch style, and ultra-violence associated with them. In fact, this is by the most violent of the three. 

‘Only God Forgives’ opens with the bloody murder of a 16-year-old prostitute at the hands of Billy, Julian’s older brother. The inspecting police officer, Lieutenant Chang, gives the father of the murdered girl a baseball bat and allows him to bludgeon Billy’s head to a pulp. 

Chang then cuts the father’s hands-off for allowing his daughter to engage in sex work in the first place. 

Julian’s domineering mother, Crystal, arrives in Bangkok, with expectations for Julian to avenge his brother’s murder. But when Julian finds out about the actions that led to Billy meeting his maker, he lets his brother’s handless killer off the hook.

Julian’s subservient role in the relationship with his mother seems to prevent him from having an intimate relationship with Mai, his favorite prostitute, who he clearly has feelings for. Instead, he prefers to watch Mai masturbate, whilst being tied to a chair. It’s not clear whether Mai feels the same way about Julian. She shows nurture, however, his proclivity for violence and general weirdness suggests no stable relationship could genuinely form. 

Chang is a god. He exacts swift judgment on those who have sinned, by either killing them or chopping the hands-off those seeking forgiveness. He is bullet-proof – with attempts on his life thwarted and brutal judgment bought down on all who cross his path. 

Chang’s immortality is shown best when he accepts Julian’s offer of a fight. Julian cannot touch him and Chang easily defeats the younger man, putting on a dance-like fighting performance. 

In the final scenes, Julian accepts his guilt. He shoots one of his own men to prevent the murder of Chang’s young daughter, while they wait for the Lieutenant to return home. At the same time, the police question the abhorrent Crystal, with the chief executioner eventually stabbing her through the neck.  

When Julian finds his mother’s dead body, he realizes that he is now free to make his own decisions.

He asks for forgiveness for his criminal past and his hands are removed accordingly. 

Only God Forgives‘ is beautifully shot and succeeds in creating a muggy atmosphere in seedy Bangkok underworld. 

I struggled to piece together the myriad symbolism in the film, so I gave in and allowed the film to wash over me. However, the picture provides a nice after-taste, with a range of meaty topics to discuss post-watch.

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