In the streets of Bangkok, an underworld exists which is a law into itself. If someone is killed, then there can be no peace until vengeance has been delivered. In this underworld there is one man who alone decides when the score has been squared. Cross him and you may find Only God Forgives. Review after the jump.
In the back streets of Bangkok three American brothers run a Thai boxing club, which is a legitimate front for their drug smuggling business. When the eldest brother Billy (Tom Burke) is killed after he commits unspeakable acts, their mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) travels to Bangkok to settle the score. She will not rest until all involved with the murder are dealt her brand of justice. She places the responsibility of finding the men involved on youngest brother Julian (Ryan Gosling), who despite thinking his brother probably deserved what happened to him, fears his mother and would never cross her.
They discover that Billy was murdered at the instruction of Police Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). Chang owns these streets. He dealt with the crime, dished out the punishment, and as far as he’s concerned the matter is closed. Crystal however, disagrees. She wants Chang and every one associated with him dead.
The key to unlocking film is understanding whose story it is, which is something that Refn doesn’t make immediately evident. If this film is viewed through the framing of a revenge story, you may find it unsatisfying. Billy did horrible things, and this family are criminals. It is impossible to really care or engage with their plight. However, if you frame this film as Chang’s story, that’s when things get very interesting.
Chang is the “God” in the film’s title. He owns the streets of Bangkok. He is the judge, jury and executioner. He operates outside of the bounds of reality, channelling the ancient spirits which inhabit the Eastern world, and he alone has the power to dish out justice. So imagine his fury when this American family decide to take justice into their own hands. He had already dealt with the matter, it was done. How dare they even think about trying to supersede him. Only God Forgives is Chang’s story. It is the story of a man who believes he is God; and it is the story of an American family who want to fight God, and therefore must pay the price.
The justice dealt out in Only God Forgives is brutal and relentless. This film is not for the faint-hearted. From the first time you hear the sound of Chang’s sword coming out of its sheath, you know that it’s going to be rough. While there are some truly horrific scenes, Refn made very smart and deliberate choices about how much violence to show. The most gruelling scene in the film is there because Chang is teaching the men a lesson, and he wants everyone to see. Women and children are treated with an odd amount of care and respect, especially considering the environment.
Only God Forgives is an incredibly intense film; and perhaps the most intense cinematic experience I have ever had. When I left the cinema I was physically shaking. The intensity in the film isn’t only due to the violence, but it’s also created by the original Cliff Martinez score, technically brilliant cinematography, cold performances and atmospheric setting. It’s not about not being able to look, it’s about not being able to look away.
DP Larry Smith proves that action set pieces can be shot in a way which allows the audience to experience every terrifying moment. Whether it is a rapid chase through the busy streets, or a slow walk to door which we have no idea what is behind, this film looks amazing. The composition of every frame has been so carefully put together. From the blood that blends into the red walls, to the cool blue of tiled rooms, the use of colours and the way we view the scenes is perfectly executed.
Cliff Martinez’s score is astounding. It’s atmospheric, beautiful, tense and has an otherworldly, spiritual feel about it. The score has the right amount of Thai influences to suit the film, but not overpower it. It is chiefly responsible for your elevated heart rate throughout.
Performances are all of a high level, with Vithaya Pansringarm really impressing. He is the man of my nightmares now. Pansringarm completely becomes this character, he really is God and God does not take kindly to being overruled. It wasn’t surprising to learn that Pansringarm is the president of the Thailand Kendo club. He moves with a quiet grace that is truly frightening. Gosling is well-suited to the quiet younger brother role. He is the observer, he watches and when he deems it necessary, he acts. Gosling brings a surprisingly soft heart to a character who initially seems so cold. I loved seeing Kristin Scott Thomas in such a different role. She was really quite insane; so it’s a real shame that her character was the film’s weakest point. The character was over-the-top to the point of being unbelievable at times. However, her character is vital to the film’s propulsion. In the sea of cool, calm characters, she was the one who unbalanced it all and forced them to take on God.
An incredibly beautiful, yet immensely ugly film, Only God Forgives is a heart-stopping cinematic experience. With this film Refn has cemented his place as one of cinema’s true auteurs.
By Sam McCosh
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writer(s): Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Yayaying Rhatha
Runtime: 90 minutes
Release date(s): Australia & New Zealand: July 18 2013; USA: July 19 2013