Ryan Gosling as Julian embodies the strong silent male with pronounced ambivalence toward his mother, scandalously played by Kristin Scott Thomas (Crystal). He rarely speaks, and if he does, it is usually to say, “Go!” or “No!”, but his facial expressions are eloquent. Without saying or doing much at all, he exemplifies the psychopathology engendered by horrific parenting. As the primary perpetrator of this parenting, Crystal is steely cold, wishing only for the semblance of devotion from her son, e.g., lighting her cigarette, a peck on her cheek, except when she wants revenge, then she demands full compliance. The two actors electrify the screen when they are on together.
A critical figure in the drama is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who metes out justice based on his own code. He is ruthless toward those whom he perceives as morally weak, but is more brutal to those who have been responsible for others’ weaknesses. Strangely, he always gives a transgressor a chance to explain—although of course, he usually punishes even so. Some of the rare moments of comedy in the film are of him singing what sounds like Thai love songs after scenes of brutality.
Cinematography (Larry Smith) is a character in the movie, setting the mood with its shadow and light, close-ups—particularly of hands symbolizing guilt and anger—brilliant colors, and surreptitious following of shady characters. Fortunately, some of the violent scenes were cut away to alleviate overload of blood and gore. Cliff Martinez’s music enhances the cinematography and mood of the film throughout.
Only God Forgives is certainly not a film for everyone. It reminds me of Terence Malick’s work in its artistry and the way in which the symbolism is ascendant over the story told. But it is also of the horror film genre exemplified by many South Korean movies, such as the Vengeance trilogy and I Saw the Devil. In other words, very violent.