Love and violence at your fingertips.
Of the films that comprise Refn’s Neon Trilogy, Only God Forgives is simultaneously the most narratively straight-forward and also the most obtuse. The events of the film follow a simple enough structure – man commits crime, is killed for it, brother seeks revenge – but everything else is murky, from character origins and true relationships to motivations and even outcome. Only God Forgives is a film about vengeance, virtue, perversion, violence, and duty both moral and familial, but above all else, it is a film about hands.
Throughout its course, Refn interjects dozens of visual references to hands into Only God Forgives, some subtle and some blatant, but by and large they fall into one of three categories of representation: there are hands as weapons or other means of aggression release, then hands as a symbol of futility, and finally hands as a method of connection.
Speaking to the first category, hands as weapons, the most obvious representation here is a fist, especially in regard to Julian, for whom violence or its restraint is the primary characteristic. His hands have dealt his fate: they killed his father a decade before the film’s beginning, the crime that sent Julian in exile to Thailand; they govern his legitimate life as a Muy Thai boxing club promoter; and they also facilitate his underground activity as a drug dealer, a profession personified by shadowy handoffs. As the narrative progresses, his hands and the violence they wreak will seal his fate, as well, a journey that comes to a climax in the fight between he and Chang – that Julian initiates – in which our anti-hero’s hands fail to land even a single blow on his opponent.
Speaking of Chang, his hands too manifest violence, largely when gripped around the hilt of his sword, but when it comes to that climactic fight, we find he’s just as adept with his bare hands, more adept, even, than Julian, whose hands have never known any other use than as a means of destruction, personal or otherwise.
This final fight is also the crescendo moment of the second category I mentioned, hands as a symbol of futility. Julian’s hands are all he has, they are who he is, and they fail him in the end, to the tune it would seem he is relieved of them all together by Chang’s blade in the film’s penultimate scene. We’ve seen signs of this impending failure the entire film, from the very first scene which consists of nothing more than Julian’s hands filling the frame, turning over introspectively, to the scene in which Julian washes them in a sink whose water turns to blood in his mind, to the way he makes fists of them then opens them again and finally balls them once more before initiating an abrupt beatdown in Mai’s club. This last instance in particular reflects Julian’s inability to defy his nature, both as a violent person and a dutiful one, it shows how he has no other recourse but violence, it represents his lack of control over his life and his role as a faithless disciple of brutality. So then not only do his hands physically fail him, casting his ultimate purpose as a futile one, they fail him spiritually as well by failing to deliver him the vengeance he seeks and thus the release he hopes to attain from this way of life.
Lastly, Refn uses hands to punctuate moments of connection between characters, specifically connections that are strained, frayed, or otherwise hindered. Take Crystal, Julian’s crime-ring-running mother, whose relationship with her son is fractured at best, incestuous at worst, and either way maliciously manipulative on her part. When she comes to Thailand to demand Julian avenge his brother’s murder, their first meeting in a decade is done silently with Crystal reaching out to her son and he taking her hand for a lingering moment. Refn keeps this grip in the forefront of the frame but the focus on Crystal, ever-so-slightly blurring their hands, further instilling the sense that this relationship is more than it seems, or even should be. And in their final meeting, when Julian discovers Crystal’s dead body in her hotel room, Refn keeps his camera on Julian’s hand, not his face, as he digitally penetrates his mother’s wound, an effort perhaps to return to the place their relationship began: inside her. In the case of the relationship with his mother, Julian’s hand represents duty. He has to take it when she reaches out to him, like he has to enact the things she demands of him. Along a similar line, the hands of Mai, Julian’s favorite prostitute, represent want, specifically the things Julian wants for himself but thinks he can’t have because of his violent nature and the emotional barriers this erects between he and people. Mai’s hands touch herself sexually like Julian wants to, which would be using his hands for pleasure, not pain, their primary use. Driving this home even further is the fact that Mai’s show for him starts with her tying his hands to the arms of his chair, immobilizing them, rendering them useless. Even when he does allow himself to participate, his hand is nothing more than a tool, something Mai takes in both hers and directs between her legs. After they’ve all had dinner together when Mai questions Julian as to why he lets his mother treat him the way she does, Julian responds with – what else? – his hands, angrily grabbing Mai by the throat and pinning her against the wall. In this moment, his wants have attempted to interfere with his duty, and his response is the only one he’s ever known: violence. This shows us he won’t change or be changed, he won’t save himself or be saved. Unless the end is literal. If so, Chang relieves Julian of both his hands, in turn metaphorically relieving him also of both the burden of his nature, and what remains of his ability to connect with others.
With Only God Forgives Refn gave us a fairy tale of the old-school variety, one laced with danger and deception. But there are no wolves here, no witches (at least not the literal kind), there is only human nature and the inescapable snare in which it traps us from the moment we are born until the moment we die. When it comes to fate, Refn seems to be saying – ironically – our hands are tied.