**This review contains spoilers**
With some help from his brother, Billy (Tom Burke), Julian (Ryan Gosling) owns and operates a Muay Thai fighting gym in Bangkok. Together, the brothers use the gym as a front for their true source of income: Julian and Billy smuggle and sell heroin and cocaine, and Julian receives the utmost respect as a powerful force in Bangkok’s criminal underworld.
One night, Billy is murdered after raping and beating a sixteen year old prostitute to death. Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) allows the father of the young girl to dismember and savagely beat Billy to death, and the situation becomes more complex, when Julian’s mother arrives in Bangkok to identify Billy’s corpse. Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) wants blood for her son’s death, but Julian refuses to kill the father of the prostitute after learning the truth about Billy’s despicable crimes.
Crystal is disgusted by Julian’s lack of loyalty, so Crystal instructs Gordon (Gordon Brown), Julian’s Lieutenant, to order a hit on the man, who killed Billy. But the father’s death isn’t enough for Crystal. Crystal pushes Gordon to order a hit on Lt. Chang, because he’s the man, who allowed Billy’s execution. Gordon warns Crystal about the dangers of targeting a high ranking official in Bangkok’s police department, but an obsession for vengeance clouds Crystal’s judgment.
Julian is torn between morality and the need to satisfy his overbearing mother, as he struggles with the decision to confront Lt. Chang for a one on one fight. Will Julian do the right thing, and look the other way? Or will Julian succumb to Crystal’s never ending requests for vengeance?
Kristin Scott Thomas is amazing as Crystal. Crystal is a nasty, cruel, and merciless tyrant, who constantly berates Julian with no sympathy whatsoever. The dinner scene with Crystal, Julian, and Mai (a prostitute, who shares a close and trusted relationship with Julian) is a good example. Crystal is beyond furious at Julian’s moral stance and unwillingness to extract revenge for Billy’s death, so she trashes and insults Julian in front of Mai. And Crystal doesn’t hesitate, when it comes to pulling any punches. Nothing is off limits for Crystal’s wrath, including comparisons between Julian’s penis size and Billy’s penis size. Thomas has the perfect cold demeanor for Crystal, and her unapologetic and fierce performance is something to admire here.
Julian is a conflicted character, who’s torn between doing the right thing, and honoring his mother’s wishes, as a submissive and loyal son. Gosling’s performance isn’t bad at all, and Gosling’s strong effort is admirable, but Julian is a dazed drone most of the time, who loses control with brief bursts of rage every now and then (i.e. choking Mai after the dinner), so it’s kind of hard to form an emotional connection with this character. Billy doesn't last long here, but Tom Burke is genuinely scummy and repulsive in his short screen time as Billy.
Pansringarm is a menacing antagonist. There’s an unsettling sense of panic and dread, when Lt. Chang, flanked by his loyal men, steps into the picture with the worst intentions. Using his trusty sword to deliver punishment, Lt. Chang hacks and chops through the opposition with no remorse, and you get a chance to see Chang’s brutal hand to hand combat skills during the fight with Gosling (more on that later).
So Gordon’s hit on the father, who killed Billy is a success. The assassin opens the father’s throat with a knife, but Lt. Chang? That’s another problem. Gordon orders a small group of hitmen to assassinate Chang with machine guns, but Chang escapes the attack. Afterwards, Chang and his men interrogate one of the hitman for answers, and the confession leads Chang to Gordon. After murdering the hitman with his sword, Chang tortures Gordon by driving a bunch of needles into his legs and hands, and of course, Chang eventually kills Gordon.
Now, we’re waiting for Julian’s next move. Julian decides to challenge Chang to a fight inside the Muay Thai gym. His motivations for challenging Chang to a fight aren’t 100% clear. Maybe Julian had a change of heart about defending Billy’s death? Maybe he’s trying to please his mother? After all, Crystal is heartbroken over losing her favorite son, so there’s a chance Julian sees an open opportunity to be number one in Crystal’s heart? Or is Julian trying to test his skills against Chang? Because Julian is a loose cannon with a bad temper. His motivations are unclear, but I appreciated the blunt approach to Julian’s challenge. He simply walks up to Chang, and says “Wanna fight?” and Chang accepts. No over the top drama or any wild shenanigans at all. Julian issued the challenge, and Chang accepted.
But Chang dominates Julian during the fight. Chang was the superior fighter by a long shot, and he defeated Julian with ease. When it’s all said and done, Julian walks away with a swollen, bruised, and bloody face. Julian VS Chang caught me off guard for a number of reasons. First, I expected a more competitive contest between the two. Throughout the movie, Julian has visions of Chang during his daily activities, and for obvious reasons, Julian has more than enough motivation to fight Chang. But Julian’s best wasn’t enough to defeat (or challenge) the master.
Second, I was expecting Chang to kill Julian after the fight was over, but he didn’t. Instead, Chang walked away. I have to believe Chang spared Julian’s life out of respect. Julian didn’t try a cowardly sneak attack on Chang. No, Julian approached Chang like a man to issue his challenge. Only God Forgives threw a pleasant and genuinely surprising curveball at me here, because I expected a dismembered Julian to leave the gym in pieces.
With her back against the wall, Crystal persuades Julian to ambush Chang at his home with some help from another hitman. Unbeknownst to Julian, Crystal ordered the hitman to kill Chang, the nanny, and Chang’s young daughter. The htiman murders the nanny, but as the hitman prepares to murder Chang’s daughter, Julian shoots the hitman to death at the last second, and Julian quietly walks away from the messy scene. The final moments of the movie show Julian and Chang standing together outside. Julian willingly offers his hands to Chang, and as Chang prepares to cut off Julian’s hands, the movie cuts to Chang singing for his troops at a local bar (oddly enough, Chang singing for his troops is a reoccurring scene throughout the movie).
Crystal? Yeah, Chang eventually cornered Crystal in her hotel room. After a brief chat, Chang murders Crystal by driving his sword into her throat. In the end, Crystal’s greedy blood lust was her downfall. Think about it like this, you already got the man, who killed your son. He’s dead. Just let it go. But no, Crystal HAD to go after Chang. Keep in mind, this is after Gordon gave Crystal a serious warning about killing cops in Bangkok. Crystal had the chance to escape with her life, but she’s full of foolish arrogance, because you know, she has to make a statement. And it’s kind of hard to feel sympathy for Crystal’s death, because she was a cold-hearted and vicious human being.
Only God Forgives works as a violent and fierce crime thriller. Yeah, the unwavering and brooding tone might annoy or bore some people, but I‘m not in that crowd. Only God Forgives is an eccentric and bloody tale of revenge, trust, and family, featuring brutal violence and a series of nasty death scenes. Nicolas Winding Refn’s precise work behind the camera is superb, and Refn creates the perfect gloomy atmosphere for Only God Forgives. Gosling deserves credit for a strong effort in the leading role, but he’s upstaged by Kristin Scott Thomas. It’s not as good as Drive, but Only God Forgives is another successful and enjoyable collaboration between Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn.
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