When wronged, there are two paths to take – forgiveness or retribution. The conflict between the impulse towards either is a strong one, with blood demanding blood while morality and peace require grace and empathy. Absolution wipes the slate clean, while vengeance mires all parties in the sins of the past.
It is easy to imagine that there is greater catharsis and stronger sense of justice in exacting revenge, but the question then becomes this: when has the debt been repaid, and at what point does the cycle of violence stop. Put another way, when the party in the wrong has been dually punished, what right do they have to strike back, and against whom?
These are the questions at your heart, Only God Forgives, and insofar as putting forward a violent and tense spin on this philosophical question goes, you are a rousing success.
Your director’s (Nicolas Winding Refn) previous film was the outlandishly fun and gripping Drive, which starred Ryan Gosling as a man bent toward animalistic violence who loses the battle with his human impulse toward control once the proper justification can be found for unleashing himself on those who threaten what he loves. That film was compulsively watchable, a cool and entertaining jaunt through cathartic and justifiable violence. You seem to stand as a refutation or a reaction to that work, a brutal and challenging examination of the existential emptiness that suffuses reactionary and wholly vengeful violence.
Ryan Gosling once again fills the shoes of the protagonist, this time as Julian, a cowed and emasculated kickboxing trainer and drug smuggler in Bangkok. In scenes of quiet contemplation and electric stillness, Gosling balls his hands into fists that tremble with the drive towards causing mayhem, but without the need or direction to use them. He is given a direction, however, when his brother Billy is brutally killed.
But Julian only goes so far, restraining himself once he finds out that his brother was killed by the father of a young prostitute who Billy raped and murdered, and that the father subsequently had his arm chopped off by a cop looking to make him pay for allowing his daughter to prostitute herself. It is a complex and disgusting cycle of violence, but it isn’t a cycle – it is a ring, a closed loop that has completed its circuit. Without new violence added in to the circuit, entropy would set in and the world would settle once more into peace.
Of course, this is not to be. When Julian and Billy’s mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives from America she is hungry for blood, failing to see the justification and purpose behind her eldest son’s murder. She takes matters into her own hands, and begins anew the clockwork mechanism of bloody retribution.
From here the story spins wildly, though never out of control. The direction is tight and efficient, giving physiological inroads into characters through both stillness, framing, and montage. The actors are all more than equal to the tasks they are given, breeding depths and complexities in their otherwise efficiently-written characters.
Among the stellar cast Scott Thomas rises as a clear standout. She is an icy, volatile presence, hurling invective with cutting precision in order to guilt and guile her remaining son into action that he clearly disagrees with, bending him to her will against all better judgement.
And that weakness brings him into a collision course with police lieutenant Chang, played with icy, almost unearthly resolve and intensity by Vithaya Pansringarm. Chang is a force of unyielding violent action, directed only by a firm and moral hand. In the course of the film Chang becomes the focus of Crystal’s unslaked thirst of revenge, and is more than even to the task.
All of these threads and personalities collide, brilliantly photographed and hypnotically scored. You are a chilling and painful tale of the madness at the heart of vengeance, the emptiness and pain that envelopes those who seek to satisfy themselves rather than yield to justice or morality. It is a fight picked by selfish people against the greater powers of good and order, which are equally as savage but justified in the mathematics of punitive justice.
Without a doubt you will not be a movie for everyone, but to those who can look past brutal violence, shown in full measure to explicate the real effect and impact of that same violence, to see the moral question at the core of your tale, I doubt there will be a more challenging or provocative film this year.
Brian J. Roan