It begins with a dark, Wagnerian prologue. Red smoke fills the void of blackness. Then the blade of a sword slowly invades the right side of the screen, eerily foreshadowing the quiet, yet abrasive tone that Only God Forgives will take.
The film’s title is quite fitting. Set in Bangkok, Ryan Gosling plays Julian, the drug-dealing brother of Billy (Tom Burke), also a drug dealer. Billy commits a truly vile crime (much worse than dealing drugs) and is killed in an intensely morally ambiguous way. When Julian finds his brother’s killer and hears his story, he lets him go. The moral ambiguousness continues when Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok. It’s easy to see how Julian and Billy found themselves in their lives of crime, as Crystal is consistently arrogant, rude, crude, unkind, and extremely superficial. Surprisingly, Thomas excels in this role. Her performance is vibrant and loose-cannon, complementing Gosling’s subtle, nuanced turn. Crystal blames Julian for the cycle of violence that erupts from his inaction, but it’s mainly due to the silent, scary police chief Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who indulges in ultra-violent revenge killings to make his points. Chang is a foreboding figure in the film, hovering over Julian’s consciousness in his daydreams and nightmares. When they finally face each other, the climax is rewarding and thematically endearing.
Julian runs from all of his problems, even if he does have solid reasons. It leads him down a path towards insanity. His mother is also insane, but in a different way. She coddles dissent; she oozes anger. Looking at her, it’s easy to see why Julian backs down from everything, and the only time he steps up to the plate, everything goes terribly wrong. This would all just be great character work were it not for the film’s release date. We have seen Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul produce perhaps some of the best world cinema ever in the past decade: Tropical Malady; Syndromes and a Century; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Forgives really feels like Uncle Boonmee at points, with eerie imagery and effects tying into the story with tremendous thematic relevancy. To see an action auteur like Nicolas Winding Refn throw his hat into Weerasethakul’s ring is truly a gift to film buffs everywhere, because it means he has big aspirations. I think this film is more meaningful and less slight than something like Refn’s last film, Drive, which felt like a style exercise, albeit a great one. This is a style exercise too, but it means more to the film world as it stands right now because it is unwavering, unflinching, and it completely succeeds at transcending even its beneficial Thai influence to become something all its own.
– George Napper