Is it possible to overcome your past personal baggage without it getting in the way of your future? Does it come at a high price? That's part of the premise behind the DVD release of "Only God Forgives," which followed multiple characters in their quest for revenge over one act of brutal random violence that just started a war that no one could stop. Unfortunately, the movie was off to a very good start, but it got lost in the shuffle of juggling one too many ideas in only a 90 minute time span.
"Only God Forgives" followed a troubled American named Julian (Ryan Gosling) who fled the country after killing someone. He began a new life in Bangkok that required him to manage a boxing club by day, which functioned as a front for his family's successful drug business. Julian's older brother Billy (Tom Burke) also helped to take care of things that Julian was unwilling to go near. Sadly, Billy wasn't able to escape his darker impulses when he wasn't working. He ended up murdering a local prostitute, which put him in the path of an honor obsessed cop named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) that allowed Billy to be killed as a punishment for his crime. Julian also had to contend with his overbearing mother/boss Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) coming to town in an effort to kill everyone who was involved with Billy's death. She basically pushed Julian into doing her bidding, even when he believed that his brother got what was coming to him. Julian turned to a local girl named Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam) who he often paid to have the pleasure of her company without ever truly touching her. When Crystal believed that her son wasn't moving fast enough, she authorized her own assassin to go after Chang, which backfired and led to multiple casualties on both sides. Crystal's actions led to a major confrontation between Chang and Julian that changed everything for both men. Who will survive the battle and who will win the war to fight another day?
In terms of questions, the movie asked quite a few that sadly weren't really answered because it was hard to determine what was part of the story and what wasn't. The movie's simple revenge premise had some potential, but it was squandered due to an unclear execution. It was ironic that a plot driven film had very little action going on, until the last 30 minutes or so when it truly kicked into overdrive. The only problem was that the last minute action was too little too late for viewers to get invested into the story. There were also way too many wordless fantasy sequences that didn't make much sense in the beginning of the film, and a few that went on for far too long. One sequence showcased Julian and Chang somehow crossing paths even before Billy was killed, but it was done in such a way that it almost seemed like Chang's presence was almost a strange red herring of things to come. If the sequence had some dialogue, it might have made some semblance of sense to the audience. It's a shame because the movie had the promise of being another great film noir type movie from Nicolas Winding Refn who made waves last year with his U.S. directorial debut "Drive," which balanced thrills, chills and the appropriate amount of character development which was sorely lacking this time around. It also didn't help that the movie's overall tone felt rushed from start to finish because the filmmakers were pressured to make their release date instead of paying a little more attention to detail. Hopefully, Refn will take a little more time in focusing on the details when he works on his next film.
In terms of breakout stars, Scott Thomas and Pansringarm led the pack as two very different characters who went to great lengths to exact revenge. Scott Thomas' Crystal managed to leave a very strong impression as soon as she arrived in Bangkok. Her character managed to add fuel to an already growing fire as she barked orders to anyone who crossed her path. Scott Thomas managed to provide Crystal with the right amount of vulnerability and sometimes inappropriate grit as her character grieved the loss of one son who could do no wrong in her eyes, while the other was treated like a second class citizen for being the one who lived. She allowed her character to be a fascinating character study of how power and violence could corrupt someone who was meant to be a nurturing figure rather than the complete opposite. Scott Thomas had the ability to pretend to be a loving mother and could switch right into publicly humiliating her son within a matter of seconds, which the character did when Julian brought Mai to meet Crystal in a failed attempt to please her. Pansringarm, on the other hand, had the challenging task of portraying an anti-hero who had just as much blood on his hands as Crystal. He embodied Chang with the right amount of force and vulnerability that he only shared with his young daughter as a way to leave the violence behind. His most memorable scene came when Chang was forced to confront Crystal after the body count rose too high. He conveyed a lot on-screen without having to say very much, but his lethal actions definitely spoke more volumes than Gosling did in the entire film. Let's hope that Gosling and Refn choose a little more carefully when they inevitably make their next film together in a way to learn from their mistakes with this film.
Verdict: Despite a promising premise, the movie suffered from a disorganized script that only focused on plot and failed to develop the main characters properly in a way that viewers could root for them at all.
DVD Score: 2 out of 5 stars
Movie Rating: R
1 Star (Mediocre)
2 Stars (Averagely Entertaining)
3 Stars (Decent Enough to Pass Muster)
4 Stars (Near Perfect)
5 Stars (Gold Standard)