Director Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling are back together for their second outing since 2011’s Drive; and, similar to their debut collaboration, the results are electric. With its plot dividing many critics, some siting it as true-to-life and others denouncing it as muddled and direction-less, this film definitely does not follow a straight linear progression for the lead character as in Drive. In fact, similar to his last project The Place Beyond the Pines, Gosling in many ways is not even the lead character here. He is not a hero or even an anti-hero, but rather a wannabe-hero; an outsider who is caught between the distorted criminal ‘morals’ he was raised with and his own personal ethical compass. Gosling plays Julian, an American expatriate, who runs a Thai boxing club in Bangkok. This boxing club is actually a front for his drug-smuggling empire with his older, unhinged brother Billy. After Billy does some pretty nasty stuff to a Thai prostitute resulting in her death, he remains at the crime scene and surrenders himself to the police. This is when we are introduced to Lt. Chang or, as he is known, the “Angel of Vengeance”.
As much as a joy Gosling is to watch on screen, in yet another silent-man role, Vithaya Pansringarm is a very welcome addition as Lt. Chang. The character of Chang has a very strict code of punishment and acts as a kind of real-life Thai Judge Dredd; being judge, jury and executor all in one. Herein lays the dark theme of violence throughout the movie, Only God Forgives is not for the faint-hearted in that sense. Lives, limbs and… whatever else Chang can get his hands on are flippantly cut short throughout. So it all seems so simple; Billy’s initial murder leads to a string of events, including the arrival of Julian and Billy’s mother Crystal (an amazing performance by Kristin Scott Thomas), and this culminates in a big face-off between Julian and Chang – right? Thankfully, no. If that were the case, Winding Refn would essentially just be re-making Drive with boxing replacing cars.
The difference is the complex, and confused, character of Julian. He is shown to believe that Billy deserved his eventual demise, and also to be almost mesmerized by the near-mythical Lt. Chang. Adding to Julian’s complexities is his not-your-every-day relationship with his mother, someone get this man on a couch asap! As Julian struggles between being berated by Crystal and also called upon by her for his help in Billy’s vengeance; he must eventually decide once and for all how the sinners of this story must be punished – including himself. And Chang is always on call in that department. Fans of Winding Refn will be pleased that, outside of the plot, many of the director’s unique traits are evident. Primary of those is the lucid look of the film, it is as sensual as Drive in that sense. Bangkok is presented as a wonderful stage of neon colours for all this to play out on. Even the film’s poster is something to behold aesthetically. I highly recommend seeing this story of a criminal’s moral struggle between right and wrong, told through the eyes of one of today’s most exciting directors. Even if you fall on the side of disliking the plot progression; the beautiful look of Only God Forgives and the masterful acting of Gosling, Scott Thomas and Pansringarm are enough to keep anyone entertained.
Viewed in the highly recommended and extremely reasonable Richmix Cinema on Bethnal Green Road in East London.