Skip to main content

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.


The Place Beyond the Pines
(2012)

(SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines. When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world.


But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished.


The inspiration for the movie ought to have dampened expectations. Director Derek Cianfrance, who teamed with Ryan Gosling on Valentine, took his cue from Gosling’s reported wish to rob a bank (as something in life he hadn’t done but wanted to do; this from one of the most feted actors of his generation). Gosling proceeded to explain how he’d go about it (so he’d obviously given the matter some thought) and his plan is what you end up seeing.


Which might have been well and good if Gosling had proposed the idea to another of his collaborators, Nicolas Winding Refn. After all, Drive turned on a not so dissimilar premise; Hollywood stuntman moonlights as a getaway driver (do we sense a running theme of muscle-brained machismo in Gosling’s choices?)


But Refn’s movie is consciously mythic and stylistically extravagant. You couldn’t mistake it for complex, except in a textural sense. That’s part of its pleasure. Cianfrance has stylish visuals on his side (courtesy of Steve McQueen’s regular cinematographer Sean Bobbit; his Valentine DP Andrij Parekh turned the project down after a premonitory dream in which he died during the opening fairground stunt sequence). And there is a haunting, evocative score from Mike Patton. But the production values are leagues ahead of the screenplay (by the director with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder).


What impact it has comes from its structure., I’d expected this to be a Gosling movie with Bradley Cooper in a supporting turn, but in the tradition of Psycho it takes some surprising detours. Cooper’s cop (Avery Cross) doesn’t actually show up until the end of the first act when he puts an end to Gosling’s robbery spree. It couldn’t happen a moment too soon, as I was wondering how I’d endure a 140-minute movie all about dim-watt sociopath Luke Glanton. This isn’t a character you can feel for, or who betrays any insights. He’s a caricature, as exterior as his blonde rinse and ridiculous tattoos, and any empathy we might have is forfeited long before we witness his explosive violence.


Cianfrance ensures that the heists themselves are enervating; there is a real sense of danger and immediacy to the chases. But they can’t make up for the deficiencies in the plot. Eva Mendes (as the mother of Glanton’s child) and Mahershala Ali (as her other half; Ali has recently been seen to scheming effect in House of Cards) are sympathetic in the face of Luke’s primal cartoon force, but the scenario is never for a moment believable. This another vehicle for Gosling to pose as an earthy, blue-collar type (even with the ludicrous character notes), to banish the ghost of The Mickey Mouse Club and show us how much he is informed by all those gritty, provocative ‘70s movies that stars made back then. Except that this time he’s shot him in the foot. His efforts prove faintly ridiculous, all posturing and no content. Glanton is as empty as Gosling’s thousand-yard stare. Cianfrance might argue that the point is that Glanton is completely lacking in self-awareness, but he omits to present a good reason for us to be involved with his story or an effective bridge between his elaborate criminality and the theme he wishes to explore. He’s using Timmy Mallet’s hammer to crack a nut.


The title of the movie sounds like something David Lynch might come up with, and Cianfrance frequently manufactures a dreamlike ambience that wouldn’t seem out of place in Lynch’s fare. But it feels like an inappropriate choice, foisted on subject matter that ultimately reveals itself to be so lacking in substance. He sets out to tackle an inter-generational theme (the sins of the father, and the need for forgiveness), but the canvas is too broad for him to pay any aspect of it justice. If the first sequence lacks credibility, the second is humdrum and over-familiar. Perhaps if Cianfrance had come up with something really Lynchian (Glanton and Cross are the same person!) it might have redeemed the stodgy aspects and rendered the dish more palatable.


Cooper is nearly as unbelievable playing a cop as Gosling is as a macho stunt rider. You’re never in any doubt that this is just an actor larking about at cops and politicians. The tentative attempts to explore the undeserved heroic status foisted in Cross, and his resultant guilt, have potential. But Cianfrance squanders this with ham-fisted exposition (Cross goes to see the police shrink who works out in seconds that he has problems being around his infant son because of his guilt over leaving Glanton’s son fatherless; her deductive powers are astounding!) It also quickly becomes obvious that the director has nowhere to take Mendes’ character for the rest of the story. She’s purely reactive, there to illustrate the parallels and differences between the two men who mess up her life (Cianfrance makes this particularly plain in scenes where each attempts to force her to take a gift as she escapes into the safety of her car).


The police corruption plotline isn’t just sub-The Shield, it makes the so-so cop dramas of James Gray and Gavin O’Connor look profound and insightful. A raft of great actors pop up for a few scenes (Rose Byrne, Bruce Greenwood, Ray Liotta) and there are good ideas sprinkled in, but none of it really hangs together. Maybe Cianfrance could have done his ideas justice with a mini-series (although that stunt riding bank robber shit would never fly), but the second act in particular suffers from rushing over the ground it needs to cover to reach the third.


Because, despite the focus being away from the star leads, the final act is where Cianfrance actually gets a grip on the story he wants to tell. The first two were needed to realise the third, but they weren’t the point. That doesn’t mean he is able to carry off the essential-interconnectedness-of-things contrivance by which the paths of the sons of Glanton (Dane DeHaan as Jason) and Cross (Emory Cohen as AJ) entwine. Cianfrance is pushing for the gravitas of grand Shakespearean tragedy and, if these two were star-crossed lovers rather than friends-come-enemies (albeit, there is a hint of homoerotic subtext at times, as there is between Luke and Ben Mendelsohn’s Robin in the first act), he might have succeeded. But he can’t disguise the wheels of convenience dictating the plot. DeHaan and Cohen are very good, although I haven’t seen the latter before to judge if his range. The character of AJ seems to suggest the idea that you’re better off not knowing your natural father than having one who neglects you, in which case you’ll most likely turn out to be a right little shit. DeHaan brings a commanding intensity to all his roles, and occasionally puts me in mind of a young Brad Dourif.


Cianfrance does little to sell the 15-year leap in terms of the holdover actors. Jason’s visit to Robin is well done though, and there is a strong flavour of the way memory adjusts the past to his reminiscences (that, and his need to avoid telling Jason the unvarnished truth). Bradley has slicked back his hair and donned a suit, but we only believe he’s the District Attorney because we are told it is so. Nevertheless, the scene where he confronts his son in the police cell, instructing him to stay away from Jason is powerful (“You leave that kid alone!”), and has a depth to it missing elsewhere. Cianfrance attempts to explore the idea of the inability to escape one’s past, but he ends up dealing with it rather crudely. Jason forces Cross to drive to the Miller’s Crossing-esque titular locale, the same spot where Ray Liotta was set to whack him over a decade earlier. There’s a sense that he should have died then, and that he has been a walking dead man ever since; it is only when he issues a heartfelt admission of sorrow for what he did that he finds peace. It’s a strong scene, and well-played, but it acts as a climax to a much better movie than the one the preceding two hours gave us.


I’ve yet to be convinced by Cianfrance. He’s a talented director, but his writing is neither as profound nor resonant as he clearly thinks it is. The intimacy of the performances in Blue Valentine (and, as here, the camerawork) papered over many of the deficiencies in the storytelling. He’s also clearly fascinated by the device of ellipses; there he used it reasonably well, but here the conceit has caught up with him. He may need to set his sights a little lower next time. Or better still, work from someone else’s script.

**1/2

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

The Krishna died of a broken finger? I mean, is that a homicide?

Miami Blues (1990) (SPOILERS) If the ‘90s crime movie formally set out its stall in 1992 with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs , another movie very quietly got in there first at the beginning of the decade. Miami Blues picked up admiring reviews but went otherwise unnoticed on release, and even now remains under-recognised. The tale of “blithe psychopath” Federick J. Frenger, Jr., the girl whose heart he breaks and the detetive sergeant on his trail, director George Armitage’s adaptation of Charles Willeford’s novel wears a pitch black sense of humour and manages the difficult juggling act of being genuinely touching with it. It’s a little gem of a movie, perfectly formed and concisely told, one that more than deserves to rub shoulders with the better-known entries in its genre. One of the defining characteristics of Willeford’s work, it has been suggested , is that it doesn’t really fit into the crime genre; he comes from an angle of character rather than plot or h

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

You tampered with the universe, my friend.

The Music of Chance (1993) (SPOILERS) You won’t find many adaptations of Paul Auster’s novels. Original screenplays, yes, a couple of which he has directed himself. Terry Gilliam has occasionally mentioned Mr. Vertigo as in development. It was in development in 1995 too, when Philip Haas and Auster intended to bring it to the screen. Which means Auster presumably approved of Haas’ work on The Music of Chance (he also cameos). That would be understandable, as it makes for a fine, ambiguous movie, pregnant with meaning yet offering no unequivocal answers, and one that makes several key departures from the book yet crucially maintains a mesmerising, slow-burn lure.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .