Nicolas Winding Refn has made quite the splash over the last few years in the indie film world and he appears to be quite happy with the reputation he is building as an unconventional and unforgiving director. Only God Forgives is a brutal tale set in gangland Bangkok, which made the leaflet competition offering to fly a couple to the Thai capital in the foyer quite unappealing. Two expatriate American brothers, Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling) run a drugs business under the guise of a Muay Thai boxing club. When Billy, a violent individual with a taste for young girls, is murdered Julian is set on course to clash with righteous police officer Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringham) who likes to dispense justice with a samurai sword. The appearance of Julian’s crude and unforgiving mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas in her most daring role to date) who taunts and ridicules her remaining son into hunting down his brother’s killer helps set Julian on course for his certain fate.
Only God Forgives is a highly stylised and powerful anti-revenge thriller that will have its detractors. It is not an easy film to watch, with extreme violence penetrating every shot through the red lighting and dark visual motif. The extended sequences without dialogue leave a lot open to interpretation, but the actors are brilliant at giving the audience insight into their minds. Ryan Gosling in particular does a tremendous job as the practically silent lead, inhabiting an ambiguous character who appears pensive and introverted but clearly has strong violent tendencies floating just beneath the surface. His counterpart in the action is too nearly completely silent, letting his sword do the talking where words simply will not suffice. Pansringham is brilliant as the karaoke singing, family man cop, bringing his own form of justice to the streets he calls home. He is unrepentant of the violent acts he commits, just frustrated that he keeps having to commit them. In his eyes this is not just a punishment but a lesson, but a lesson from which no one is learning.
Kristen Scott Thomas is fantastic as the hard to please and quick to anger Crystal. She makes no qualms of continually hinting that Billy was the favoured son and after hearing the crime he committed which lead to his death, the rape and murder of a 16 year old girl, she snaps loyally ‘I’m sure he had his reasons’. Crystal is extremely hard to like, not just to the audience, but also her own son. Julian is quick to defend his mother to his mistress after a particularly prickly dinner and will follow her orders, but that only goes so far. Crystal is ruthless, prepared to kill everyone in her path and put her son in danger, but Julian’s moral compass is stronger; his thirst for revenge is not as strong as his mother’s and he seems aware of the danger his mother is putting them both in by pursuing her son’s killer. Whilst in the past she may have been able to force him to commit atrocious acts, the distance between them that was created by his exile has apparently broken their bonds and Crystal’s manipulative power no longer has the desired effect.
Only God Forgives is a powerful, intoxicating, nightmarish film which takes a deep look at the worst aspects of human relationships and shows little hope for redemption. Chang will continue to dispense his unique brand of police justice appearing to be much like a modern day Judge Dredd, whilst loyalties and familial bonds continue to lead to crime, violence and destruction of the very worst kind. Ultimately any revenge sought by Crystal, Julian or Chang is without gain and this pointlessness is what makes this film so compelling. This film will not be for everyone, but fans of Winding Refn will certainly find a lot to like.