Ugly and beautiful, alluring and repulsive, fluid and convulsive all at once, Winding’s latest exercise in ambivalence is as polarizing as the views it garnered though not without retaining a signature style. Combining a neon rich palette and bankrupt morals, featuring viscera for the sake of showcase, and a dreamy suspension amid poetic visuals, times stops in the striking and frustrating Only God Forgives. And in spite of a deeply intimated symbolism, maybe even a hidden meaning, one feels a better editing session may have been enough to vault it toward wider acceptance. That along with a second viewing. I would put money on the latter.
The film makes environment as incidental to the story as a front is to a racket. Here, siblings Billy and Julian (Gosling) run a smuggling operation out of a kickboxing gym in Thailand without being adept at neither the discipline nor the Thai language. What is intriguing for long stretches is it taking a backseat to their extracurricular activities. So as opposed to a focus on the workings of an illegal trade, a path now beaten past every possible originality, their undoing is explored and exposed for why it was. Let us deconstruct the outermost layer first for the film is heavy on imagery.
This drug ring stretches to the US, their native country, yet it is not implied how lucrative or sizeable in scope it is. There are enough henchmen to suggest a certain level of organization, hierarchy, and some loyalty even. This is all strange for a racket this small, and too foreign to keep a low-profile. However the chain of command isn’t clearly defined, beyond one person. Crystal. A domineering, overseas overseer.
Conspicuously tucked beneath timely revelations are esoteric and implied cues of a deeply peculiar nuclear bond. Billy, the elder, seen briefly — and not to be forgotten soon — has taken it upon himself to fuck an underage prostitute and only an underage prostitute one evening. Eventually succeeding albeit with disastrous results, their mother (Kristin Thomas Scott) flies in to claim his remains. Julian for his part frequents ‘entertainers,’ but seems settled on a favorite, thus without being of the habit of accosting any so aggressively. And that infuriates Crystal, their mother, who in her micromanagement ways leaves nary an opportunity to rein in a wandering offspring. Even if it includes extolling the size of his brother’s phallus.
Perhaps in hindsight Bangkok is a fitting setting due to a unique reputation as a haven for a variety of crackpot venues to get one’s rocks off in as it allows for a key juxtaposition. Billy and Julian’s adventures in Thailand are in a way revelatory of the outward manifestation of their coping abilities against a shared trauma. Never mind that Refn deliberately refrains from mourning gestures beyond the expected interment, considering no less than an obliterating overkill seems suitable an eulogy next. And no topic as pressing as the means how; Crystal presides over a domain as Oedipal underneath as it is an heterogeneous transplant on the surface. Closeted skeletal remains of a fowl merely coming home to roost.
Yet precisely amidst inlays of dreamscapes and the sobering blows of reality is where the film teeters ever so unreliably for its tepid narrator, and hence why a second look comes recommended. Next are the symbolic overtones of castration, instruments of castration, and a couple of crude castrations (veiled emasculations). Chang, the film’s supposed villain, wields one such instrument and first appears to Julian in a menacing day dream. He is an arbiter of honor. An equalizer in any matter where some sense is wanting, but a self-appointed adjudicator no less. However, as a law enforcer, he is every bit as objective as his brand of justice is all his own. Which makes it personal. Such a contradiction hardly makes for a qualified villain, even one so atypical, because for a film involving a woman who may (or may not) fucked her sons, morality is unpertinent. Despite it shedding an unexpected light on the issue of consent.
The Mother seems to interrupt Julian’s train of thought by her mere presence. Their reunion occurs at the most unusual of places, the brothel where he hears the news of his brother. Yet to have it elsewhere would undermine Refn’s chosen characterization. Prior to all this, is Julian with his favorite, arms bound to the seat as she masturbates. The imagery sequentially goes from this to Chang severing his arm to his mother sitting on the edge of the bed. Yet as he stands over the bed she’s sitting on it is she who towers over. Julian is quietly submissive to his mother’s hypersexuality. As she embraces him from a seated position, her head resting above his crotch, a nefarious kind of longing makes its way out. She comes on to him when they first meet. Humiliates him soon after. But all the same she needs him to protect her.
As she eggs him on to avenge his brother, he responds but not without his trademarked lethargic slog. After he interrogates the prostitute’s father, he’s unsold on inflicting further retribution because Billy murdered the girl so it’s even Stephen. Crystal is not having any of the eye for an eye mumbo-jumbo, not unless the eyes are switched around. When it starts to feel as if Julian had turned the corner, the aforementioned fantasies are apt an explanation. There he gets to act out the violent urges Billy and Crystal find checking to be so self-defeating. Indeed, self-destructive given the hindsight. Outside of one example of each (subtle and overt) her oversexed bent is shown to have its outlet, although how effective is debatable when she passes the time checking out robust male dancers in a final showing of lament that the biggest dick in Thailand no longer throbs for her. Or any underage hooker for that matter.