The substance of a Nicholas Windng Refn films sits heavily with me for hours and days after watching any of them. When parsing a film, the most basic of questions interacts with what I've seen – what is it about? Which, with other films is answered quickly. This one was about Snakes on a Plane and Angry Samuel L Jackson, that one was about homoeroticism and fast cars (Fast and Furious anyone?), this one about how very silly poorly written nonsense can make billions of dollars (you can populate this list on your own). Only God Forgives, like Valhalla Rising and Drive, is about moral gradation.
The story is just a shell, a visual affect, filmed in such a way that it feels like even the content is a construct; a platform to deliver some powerful and unsettling messages, that can't be described in words, and maybe this is why there is so little dialogue in any of his films. It's about the kinds of feelings produced by music, alluded to in poetry and great writing; this is a Winding Refn film. Which is why whenever I read a review or hear feedback tagging his films as ultra-violent, it feels to me like reading The Old Man and the Sea and thinking it's about an old guy fishing, or seeing David, and describing it as 'stone'. Which it is, they are, the movie is, but these are components only. An important constituent in producing a greater abstract.
But things happen. Important things. And some are terribly violent and disturbing to watch. Why? To fulfil the ultimate meaning of the movie, which to be fair, is not much. Just a study in abstracts, and of those, none exceedingly powerful, except in subtlety. This movie feels like a pallet of the finer shades of grey, the unique exposition of which is an achievement in itself. If nothing else, it's breaking new ground.
It's the story of 2 brothers in Bangkok, running a boxing club; a dubious front end for a drug business. When the elder viciously murders a 16 year old girl, he is in turn killed by the girl's father. Quickly revealed is the younger brother (Gosling) and his mother's (Kristen Scott Thomas) intent to kill this man.
This confronting entry point to the exposition, provides no safety for the viewer in recognising character archetypes; no hero to follow or enemy to hate. We may follow them all and hate them all, except perhaps for the younger brother played by Gosling; his redemption may be found in a lack of agency and perverted sense of loyalty. Indicators to assist the audience in placing these characters into a mould informed from cinema, are vague and may rely on some familiarity with David Cronenberg or Paul Thomas Anderson, with some exceptions.
The father uses a katana sword in taking the lives of his enemies; a brutal seeming mechanism and one reminiscent of a villain, however he is not acting out in chaos, but retaliation and it could be argued, honour. He has a simple life, a loving family and seems to follow a warrior's code, and Zen found in repetition and practice, in achieving mastery.
Gosling's character attempts to be the arm of vengeance, for the (not unwarranted) death of his brother, perhaps not for his own sake, but the powerful will of his mother and disturbing control she wields over his life. It is an unsettling relationship, with allusions to perversion in the most grotesque possible ways, finding a crescendo in a scene of profound intensity and a depth of metaphor surrounding the relationship between mother and son.
The character of the mother, masterfully performed by Thomas, holds her eldest son above all moral precepts; when informed of what her son had done, she calmly responds 'He must have had his reasons'. Her loyalty to her first born is dysfunctional at best, and she cruelly belittles her other son, an unworthy and humiliated reminder of what remains.
Throughout, the allusion Refn makes to notions of touch and reach and grasp was provoking and baffling. Gosling's character enjoys being bound; Is it restriction from the things he wants most desperately? Or does it represent his impotence against the barbs and humiliation of his mother? Are his hands a metaphor of his own agency? Like Valhalla Rising, this is a movie to be watched many times, and new meaning found with each viewing. And like any of his films, a solid block of easy watching pallet cleanser in between is important to not get too lost in the darkness of the worlds he creates.
I've felt the resistance friends and family have to this film (and any of Refn's films), which is always disappointing to me. That a movie must be a certain way, and anything beyond this being an unnecessary venture into gratuity or artiness for the sake of being arty, is tantamount to calling our lives and our world a single dimensional place of bright primary colours and simple meaning.
If life is more, then so can a film like this be more.