Apr 4, 2013

The Place Beyond The Pines

A.k.a, Schenectady, New York; according to the new drama by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), an American semi-wasteland full of missing fathers, and repressed and not so repressed violence. This long, ambitious film, about absent fathers and lonely sons, heroes and losers, is like Blue Valentine, an exercise in creating intense intimacy with the characters. The movie is comprised of three intertwined stories. Ryan Gosling plays a man called Luke, a motorcycle daredevil and inveterate loser, who aims to do right as a father but keeps screwing up. Gosling is very good at playing obstinate, almost childlike brooders. His smooth underplaying and his angelical face make his violent outbursts all the more effective. He and Eva Mendes together are a many splendored thing to behold. Mendes is incredibly sexy, but also a fine actress; like a Raquel Welch with talent.
Gosling's story comes to an end as Bradley Cooper's story begins. Unlike some of the critics I read, who cannot keep gigantic story spoilers under wraps, I won't tell you how. Cooper plays Avery Cross, a rookie cop who gets in trouble in the line of duty. As opposed to Luke, Avery has an education, a solid middle class upbringing and every chance to be a perfectly good husband and father, but it doesn't work out. He turns out to be a willingly absent father to his bully of a young son (the very mannered Emory Cohen. Somebody must have told this not untalented kid he looks like a young Marlon Brando. He's gotta stop believing it). Cooper is very good in this movie, playing a deceptively plain man who turns out to be a shark. The outlaw turns out to be more decent than the cop; the loner more home oriented than the family stalwart. One gets more satisfaction from these kind of ironies than from understanding who these people really are. Still, all the actors are fantastic, very invested in whatever it is that drives them, and this makes the movie compelling. Ray Liotta is extra perfect as a corrupt cop so efficiently nasty, he makes you want to run for your life. So is Ben Mendelsohn, as Luke's melancholy sidekick, in whom I detected a bit of a very effective man crush on Gosling (and who can blame him?).
Weaved into the topic of fathers is the theme of heroes, of decency and truth and the kind of behavior that men are supposed to teach their offspring, when they are not too busy being selfish egotists.
I have complained bitterly about the American hero fantasies that inform most commercial films, which are made mostly by men. I'm tired of the "trying to impress my absent dad" shit. Nobody ever tries to impress their moms, unless it's a comedy. I'm so over this pious macho cliché. At least Cianfrance and his co-writers are out to explore in more depth what really makes a man a father and a hero. Their answer, in short, is the one who sticks quietly around, being a decent, hardworking human being, actually caring for his family. Not the cop, not the daredevil, but the stand up guy (the wonderful and super handsome Mahershala Ali, from House of Cards).
The third act is about the teenage sons of these two men. The movie is gripping until past the midpoint. Then it becomes strained melodrama, with alarmingly unconvincing plot contrivances and grand symbolic gestures that have characters doing all kinds of unlikely things. But Cianfrance has a great  way with actors, and a desire to make the intimacy between characters and audience happen; actually, a rare feat. In lesser hands this could be a farfetched weepie, but it has a dark and probing spirit, an ominous vibe that is well worth watching.

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