Billy and Julian live in Thailand and run a boxing club. Except they don't. They run an underground drug smuggling operation. When older brother Billy rapes and kills a young Thai prostitute and surrenders to the police, it's not the police who take revenge, rather Lieutenant Chang, the "Angel of Vengeance", brings in the girl's father and allows him to beat Billy to death. As Julian goes on the hunt for the man who killed his brother, their mother Crystal turns up demanding vengeance. When Julian realises the man who killed Billy is suffering enough after losing an arm at the hands of Chang, he lets him go, but Crystal has other ideas for the people who have wronged her family...
I'm not going to lie to you, I thought Drive was spectacular, and thoroughly under-respected outside of critical and academic circles. Everyone I know loves it, then again most of my friends are the kinds of people who like obscure and over-looked films. It's one of those films people will tell you is good and that you need to watch it. Much like any other work by Nicolas Winding Refn. The Pusher trilogy, Valhalla Rising, Bronson... Art house cinema that attempts a mainstream audience yet couldn't find it until Drive. Starring Ryan Gosling. Now we comes back with Only God Forgives. Starring Ryan Gosling. Rest assured, Refn is sticking to his now most popular style and only goes deeper and darker.
Firstly, Only God Forgives is a beautiful film to watch. It's been lavishly shot with the same stylistic verve and clinical precision that Refn came to perfect in Drive, and it makes the seedy underworld of Bangkok look stunning and, frankly, attractive. Secondly, there's little to no dialogue in roughly 90% of this film, which places the emphasis on two things; the aforementioned beautiful visuals, and the physical acting performances of its leads Ryan Gosling and Vithaya Pansringarm, playing Julian and Lt. Chang respectively. Essentially, Only God Forgives is a 90 minute game of cat and mouse played out subtly and violently. That may seem like a contradiction of terms, but here they combine to create a unique beast that's captivating and essential viewing.
The story is basic, and one that's been played out in a million gangster films: Crime family searches for revenge after family member murdered whilst constantly fighting poice. Except this is different. We're in Bangkok now, the police don't work the same way, and Lieutenant Chang thinks he's God, dishing out justice with a samurai sword. Plus Ryan Gosling never speaks, he acts. And he lusts after a prostitute. It's Julian's mother Crystal who causes the trouble. It's as if Julian understands the culture he lives in and that justice has already been done before Crystal searches for a higher justice. It's subtle storytelling, done largely through Gosling and Pansringarm's acting, and an incredible performance by Kristin Scott Thomas as Crystal acting largely as the mouthpiece for the action on screen. Even the film's use of music is minimal. Everyone remembers the soundtrack of Drive as much as the film. Here though, the action is kept as real as possible, the heightened reality is dampened by the sounds of real life, with music only used to punctuate particular sequences.
However, as I mentioned before, one of the two most important things here is the acting, and the quality on display here is immense. Ryan Gosling all but revives his character of the driver in Drive by playing a character without any emotion outpouring on the surface, but clearly feels sympathy and remorse and anger under the surface. However, he is equally matched here by Vithaya Pansringarm, who plays Lieutenant Chang, or the "Angel of Vengeance". Cold, emotionless, logical, and justice delivered at his fist or at the end of his samurai sword. He's a great find by Refn to match Gosling's gritty integrity here and only goes to make this a thoroughly darker, murkier affair to sit through. However, it's Kristin Scott Thomas who steals the attention here. Wearing a blonde wig and playing a role that contrasts both to every other character in the film as well as every other character she's ever played in her career, Crystal is a unique character who acts as the touch paper that starts the fire and keeps it burning to the bitter end through her dialogue and expressive visual acting.
Overall, it would be a lie to say I'd never seen a film like this before, because I have, made by the same director and starring the same lead actor. However, this goes further and way, way darker than Drive ever dared to go. It's an unrelenting and emotionally draining 90 minutes, which sounds short, but it's really not when you're sat in front of this visceral treat. It switches between the dark, the odd, the blackly humorous and the surreal with the greatest of ease and it all makes perfect sense. It makes sense because once you enter the world of Winding Refn, you're in for the full journey. And I am loving every minute of it at the moment.