(Derek Cianfrance, 2012)
Long, slow, sombre and oh-so serious, Cianfrance's film is the sort of old-fashioned grand American filmmaking many assume no longer exists. It is also immensely flawed, though the strength of its directors bold style and commanding technique obscures this to a large extent.
A mightily ambitious family saga with touches of melodrama and crime in its DNA, it begins with Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a stunt motorbike rider at a travelling carnival who is approached upon his return to an upstate New York town by a local girl with whom he once had a fling. Romena (Eva Mendes) had his baby, and once she lets him know, his wandering days end, and he sticks around, falling in with Ben Mendelsohn's scuzzy mechanic and causing trouble for just about everyone. That trouble eventually crosses the line into outright criminality, and the consequences of his actions effect local cop Avery (Bradley Cooper), who is struggling with the corruption around him and his own issues with his father and wife (Rose Byrne). The connection between these two men is echoed years later when their sons meet by chance.
The kind of ambition Cianfrance shows here is a gamble. While it may be impressive in its own right - not many young directors have such reach or even understand how to conjure up the sort of intensity The Place Beyond The Pines frequently manages - it demands an exceptional level of talent to deliver an end product worthy of it's loftier goals.
Cianfrance is undoubtedly a talent. He has a fine eye and infuses scenes with an arty sense of personality, a coherent and distinctly individual view of the world which gives his film a haunted, emotional quality which makes it seem more interesting than it actually is. The problem then is that his central thesis here - the evil that men do, basically - is such a watery one that it renders his film little more than a torrid, extremely male melodrama. It plays not unlike the work of James Gray, only lacking his sense of intelligence and some of the complexity his work evinces.
It has a strong ensemble, but a couple of the actors are lazily cast. Gosling, for instance, plays Gosling, more avatar than character, all wardrobe choices (inside-out t-shirts), constant cigarette and pout. He poses better than any other actor currently alive, and does a sort of method angst, but he is superficial here, at best. Then there is Ray Liotta, here playing a corrupt, strangely menacing Cop, whose nature we understand almost as soon as we see his face.
Faring best is Bradley Cooper in a tricky role. His cocksure smirk is wiped away by the plot here, and the sweaty anxiety which replaces it makes of him a far more compelling figure.
What we are left with, then, is a good tale, quite well told. If only it hadn't presented itself as so much more.