Derek Cianfrance’s brilliant Blue Valentine was a deft example of the way less can be substantially more. In taut scene after taut scene, we witnessed the sad dissolution of a marriage and the subsequent destruction of a family without ever seeing more than was absolutely essential. Cianfrance’s mostly hand-held camera captured the raw, haunting performances from his superb leads - Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling - never letting up on the ratcheting emotional tension and turmoil between them. It was something like an indie Scenes From a Marriage, which Cianfrance made all the more devastating by letting his audience glean the full effect of the shattering ending entirely on its own.
It was a loose trail of tiny bread crumbs heading into the woods that still lead up to an epic tragedy, an acorn in a veritable forest of emotional suffering. It was moving and powerful almost precisely because it was so tightly focused and invested in its characters. Williams and Gosling were so good, so firmly entrenched in their characters’ misery and angst, we couldn’t dare look away.
Cianfrance has reunited with Gosling - who, it would seem, has become the male muse for a growing contingent of young, audacious directors - in his new picture, a multi-generational saga that attempts to span a much wider set of material.But, alas, gone is the essential power and hardened focus of his earlier work. I first viewed it last year, at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it remained one of my singular disappointments of the entire festival. In attempting to increase his scope to cover multiple points of view and two generations of messed up people in upstate New York, Cianfrance is obviously attempting to broaden his scope, but instead only succeeds in showing us exactly how high he’s overreaching.
Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt rider with a traveling carnival (don’t worry, such on-the-nose symbolism is rife within this film). Upon the outfit’s return to Schenectady, he looks up an old flame, Romina (Eva Mendes), who, it turns out, has secretly given birth to their son since his last stop in town. Feeling the need to provide for his young family,he makes the imminently responsible decision to quit the carny and rob nearby banks, utilizing his extreme riding skills to full advantage when cops give chase.
During a chase from one such cop, Avery (Bradley Cooper), a by-the-book man in blue in a department rife with corruption and scandal, things take a turn for the tragic, an event that ultimately has a profound effect, some years later, on the sons of the two men: Avery’s son, A.J. (Emory Cohen), a lunk headed wannabe thug who benefits handsomely from his father’s successful political career but chooses to give as little back as possible; and Jason (Dane DeHaan), Luke’s son, a more thoughtful sort, who nevertheless befriends A.J., to the detriment of both.
Just what Cianfrance is going for here is readily apparent and difficult to gauge. On the one hand, he wants to show how our choices as adults have profound effects on our children (a thematic point certainly shared with Blue Valentine, only without actually showing the tragic end result), but on the other, he wants to make a sprawling, almost comic-book-style ensemble piece that takes enormous stylistic and story-telling risks in order to cut against the grain of our expectations. It’s not that the two can’t be compatible, but whereas Valentine felt as harshly real and raw as a home video, this film, for all its incantations and whirligigs, feels phony, a showcase of Cianfrance’s newly emboldened narrative skills.
Luke, whose point of view we share for the first half of the film, is something of an intentional cipher, a bad boy who wants to do good things for his family by any means necessary. He is a strong, largely silent man with possibly the coolest sounding job in the universe (at least for a teen boy of a certain age), and his leather armor keeps us well back from ever piercing into his soul. Avery, who ends up a smoothly ambitious politician with a beautiful wife (Rose Byrne, largely wasted here) and an utterly damaged son, is a once good man seduced into endless moral compromise in his pursuit of shiny political baubles.
The only way any of this would work is if Cianfrance had gone strictly in one direction or the other: Either conceptualizing the characters as flesh-and-blood real, or trying his hand at pulp noir. Instead he gets so hung up on his grab-bag syllogisms and hackneyed metaphors (“If you ride like lightning,” Luke is warned at one point, “you’re going to crash like thunder”), he has given us precisely the opposite of what he likely intended: A well-meant but largely unprofound thesis that desperately wants to shake us to the core, but instead barely registers a tremor. In the end, wrapped in Cianfrance’s melodramatic antics, the film is not even dealing with characters so much as two-dimensional rubrics, expected to carry the director’s thematic concerns to their logical conclusions, but without any emotional investment from the audience.
A completely different sort of film could indeed have had some pulpy fun with the setup; the opening section has pleasingly ripe echoes of Jim Thompson ripping through the carnival air, but it eventually becomes clear that kind of approach is a far cry from where Cianfrance wants to take us. He’s no genre mathematician, churning out blue-collar poetry; he wants this film to be taken literally despite the figurative method of his storytelling.
Still, although it’s a considerable misstep, it’s an honorable one, and it certainly doesn’t mean Cianfrance should be downgraded as some kind of one-hit wonder.There’s still abundant filmmaking skill to indicate he’s got plenty of talent, and he’s hardly the first young director to take a risky flier with the follow-up to a highly decorated debut (Peter Bogdanovich followed up the venerated The Last Picture Show with What’s Up, Doc?, a screwball romantic caper flick with Babs Streisand; and Sam Mendes tried his hand and failed at graphic novel noir with Road to Perdition after hitting big with American Beauty). But, if Cianfrance became a bit lost amid the clamor and whoosh of positive reviews and glowing press after Valentine, here’s hoping the more mixed buzz on this film helps put him back firmly on solid ground.
The Place Beyond the Pines 83 Cast: Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper, Rose Byrne, Ray Liotta Director: Derek Cianfrance Rating: R, for language throughout, some violence, teen drug and alcohol use, and a sexual reference Running time: 140 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 04/12/2013
Print Headline: The Place Beyond the Pines