Ryan Gosling might be the name above the title on all the posters, but he is actually probably third fiddle here after Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm. Thomas plays a vengeful mother, meeting up with her son, Gosling, in Bangkok to help settle a score after an unfortunate series of events involving a police officer in Pansringarm. As the two go back and forth things get rather violent in a hurry and everyone’s lives are a part of the stakes.
That plot synopsis is about the extent that the film actually has to offer, so if you are looking for some incredibly intricate affair you best look elsewhere. Where Refn’s film lacks in plot, he fills with mood and atmosphere that creates an incredibly tense and dark world that we can believe anything can happen in. The back and forth between these corrupt individuals pulls no punches and Refn doesn’t either. One of the more violent films I have seen in some time, Refn isn’t afraid to show you exactly what a number of the victims go through as the film moves along. It’s never played for cool though, as the violence puts you on edge, makes you uneasy and almost makes you feel the pain through the screen. The film certainly isn’t for the squeamish, but without fetishizing the violence. Pacing wise, the film is deliberately moving forward, but not once was I ever not engaged with what was going on the screen. The film is short on dialogue, but the actors fill the rooms with brooding emotion as they fall deeper and deeper into the hell that Bangkok has become for them. Cliff Martinez also delivers an incredibly intense and amazing score here as it helps set the mood and tone of the entire film; it almost never stops and constantly keeps you on edge.
Pansringarm is the standout of the film, and its star, as we follow him for the majority of the film as he tries to clean up the mess started by Julian’s (Gosling) brother. He is a living terror walking the streets of Bangkok and he has the local police at his back. Relentless in his method, Pansringarm is borderline terrifying as he wipes out this mess and you would root harder for his demise if he wasn’t possibly the second most “good” person in this film. Thomas is also incredible and evil as Julian’s mother, Crystal, and you will not believe some of the shit that comes out of her mouth. Gosling gives another muted and brooding performance here for Refn, but Scott’s character tells us everything we need to know why Julian is the way he is. Gosling is just boiling under the surface and we feel why as everything out of Thomas’ mouth gives us another reason to hate her. Crystal is pure evil and Thomas captures the character perfectly.
Refn also deserves his own little space here for absolutely shooting the hell out of this film. One of the finest looking pictures of the year, he and his cinematographer, Larry Smith, make Bangkok both gorgeous and seedy at the same time with danger lurking in the corner of every shadow. The staging of the set pieces is crystal clear, the lighting is impeccable and the camerawork excels without ever seeming flashy. This will be a tough film to beat technically when the end of the year rolls around.
Only God Forgives has quickly shot up to the head of the pack for 2013 and I can’t imagine it falling out of my top ten of the year. A completely different beast than Refn’s last film, Drive, it still captures the intensity that film has on its first viewing all while throwing in a whole helping of weird and turning the dark up to an 11. Brutal, beautiful and intense Only God Forgives is one of the year’s best.
Only God Forgives is an A