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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.