Only God Forgives is the gritty tale of family loyalty and street justice in Bangkok’s seedy underworld. The film was written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Valhalla Rising) and stars Ryan Gosling (Drive, The Place Beyond the Pines), Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), Tom Burke (The Hour, Great Expectations) and Vithaya Pansringarm (The Hangover Part II).
Bangkok is a city full of contradictions. It is at once beautiful, modern, traditional, and sometimes dangerous. It is in this dynamic city that Only God Forgives takes place. Julian (Gosling), on the run from a murder he committed in America, is living in Bangkok and running a Thai boxing club. The club is a front for his family’s business smuggling heroin and cocaine, with his brother Billy (Burke) as his partner and mother Crystal (Scott Thomas) as the boss. Things seem to be going pretty well until Billy goes on a murderous rampage and kills an underage prostitute. When the police are called, they bring in retired cop Chang (Pansringarm), who doles out his own version of justice. Chang, also known as the “Angel of Vengeance,” believes in an “eye for an eye” and allows the girl’s father to kill Billy, forcing Crystal to come to Thailand to retrieve her son’s body.
Unfortunately for Julian, things go haywire when his mother arrives. She insists that Julian avenge her eldest son and could care less how he does it. But when Julian learns why his brother was killed, he takes a different path that enrages Crystal and further damages the already odd relationship between the two. Crystal decides to take matters into her own hands, starting a chain of events that bring Julian and Chang together for an unusual showdown.
Only God Forgives is not a film that many moviegoers will get right away. The dialogue is minimal but the violence is brutal and bloody. Although some scenes may seem excessive, in my opinion they are necessary. When dealing with the kind of justice Chang advocates, it is never clean or easy to look at. It is messy and exceedingly harsh and, in some ways, is just punishment for the crime. Like he did with Drive, Refn did not go easy on the blood and there were plenty of extremely long pauses throughout the film. Some may find the pauses frustrating, but if you watch the film without the usual sense of urgency or desire to see something blow up, they will make sense.
As to the performances, Gosling’s portrayal as not-so-favorite son Julian was quietly powerful because he had to rely on his facial expressions and body language to bring his character to life. He literally had very few lines and watching him made me feel like Julian was ready to explode at any moment. Burke’s creepy turn as Julian’s brother Billy made me nauseous, thanks to his very realistic performance. Burke did not have many lines either. He has a face that easily turned to stone, which was perfect for the part. Scott Thomas was a bit over the top as Crystal. Yayaying Rhatha Phongam as Mai seemed more like window dressing than a real character.
But the biggest surprise was by Pansringarm as Chang. In a nutshell, he was excellent. As Chang, Pansringarm never raised his voice higher than a normal conversational tone, but he carried himself as an authority of the highest order. The level of respect he was given by his fellow officers was absolute, which let viewers know that Chang was not one to be trifled with, as evidenced during one hard-to-watch scene involving Byron, one of Crystal’s goons. Pansringarm, an experienced Thai boxer, also did his own fighting in the film.
Refn also did a fantastic job of using Bangkok itself as the backdrop for the film. The director employed Thai locals for the film, many of whom had no prior experience. They easily blended into their surroundings and were very natural in front of the camera. One particular local, who was used in a pivotal scene that involved a shootout in a Thai restaurant, was so good I was astonished to learn he had never acted before. Here’s hoping Only God Forgives helps get him more face-time in the near future. The film is also visually stunning because of the local businesses featured, including the karaoke bars visited by Chang and his officers. Unlike the ones in the States, these businesses were elaborately decorated and bursting with color, which seemed to heighten the senses while watching the film.
Only God Forgives is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD, which includes interviews with the director, behind the scenes footage, and an interview with Cliff Martinez (who composed the music for the film).Powered by Sidelines