Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Sins of the Fathers

If you pay attention to movies, you may have heard that The Place Beyond the Pines (2012, directed by Derek Cianfrance) has a killer opening shot. It's one of those long tracking shots that will be inevitably compared to Welles. It's the kind of opening that announces the film as having an almost o'rweening ambition. In this shot, we follow carnival stunt rider Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) as he stalks through the carnival on his way to the metal sphere in which he rides a motorcycle with two other riders. The shot itself is a stunt, but Cianfrance puts an exclamation point on it by placing an actual stunt at the end of it. Some films encompass their entire narratives in their opening shots, coded or not. This one does not code its narrative into the shot, or, rather, if it does, it only codes the first act of the movie: Ryan Gosling with jailhouse tattoos, the motorcycle, the moral squalor. Of the movie's overarching theme? There's nothing at all.

This is a film in three parts. In the first, we follow Luke Glanton as he discovers that he has a son by a woman in Schenectady, New York, a place his carnival stops once a year. The mother, Romina, is still smitten with Luke, but she's devoted to her new man, Kofi, and to the family they've started. Luke, feeling an obligation to the boy, chooses to quit the carnival and stay nearby. He takes a job at a small time mechanic shop, but can't make enough money. Robin, his boss, suggests a career in crime: the two embark on a string of daring bank robberies that take full advantage of Glanton's skills as a stunt motorcyclist. Unfortunately, Luke ends up assaulting Kofi, and Romina vows to have nothing else to do with Luke. The assault also spooks Robin, and Luke is left to pull his next bank job on his own. This ends badly, with an extended high speed chase during which Luke crosses paths with Avery Cross, an ambitious rookie cop who ultimately runs Luke to ground. The second act of the film belongs to Cross, who has problems of his own. His encounter with Luke bestows on him the status of hero, but members of his department want to use his hero status as cover for corrupt practices. Cross is squeaky clean, and feels dirtied by the things his fellow cops want him to do. He's confronted by both a thorny moral dilemma and by the very real threat from his fellow cops. Eventually he turns on them, inventing a new career as a district attorney in the bargain. Fifteen years later, Cross is running for state attorney general. He's now divorced, and his ex-wife convinces him to take in their son, AJ, who is deeply troubled. AJ has a taste for drugs, and thrown into a new school, he gravitates to solitary stoner, Jason. Jason, as it so happens, is Luke Glanton's son, though Jason himself never knew his father or what happened to him. When AJ asks if Jason can score him some ecstasy, when the two are arrested after connecting with Jason's dealer, AJ's dad has a fit of conscience and gets both kids off, though he warns AJ away from Jason. Meanwhile, Jason is discovering what happened to his own father, and when AJ throws a party and coerces Jason into providing some Oxycontin as party favors, Jason discovers how Avery Cross and Luke Glanton are connected...

The Place Beyond the Pines is a dense, meandering movie that seems like it wants to encompass as wide a swath of cinematic masculine identity as it can pack into its overlong running time. It starts small enough, as the story of a small time loser making bad mistakes. He's the kind of outlaw character that would have been at home in a sixties counterculture narrative, or better still, in film noir. Fate brings him into contact with Romina at the beginning of the movie, and as in the great films noir, fate marks him indelibly and inescapably as soon as he strays away from right and moral behavior. Cinematically, this starts as an indie drama, then transforms itself through bravura single-take action sequences into something else. The opening shot is only a foretaste of this. It layers cinematic idioms on top of each other as it unfolds, and by the time it leaves Glanton behind, it's a very different movie. The second act is film noir, too, but it's the kind of film noir that seventies filmmakers made, with echoes of Lumet or Scorsese. The filmmaking in this section of the film is less frenetic, preferring a menacing series of intimidating gatherings: a dinner, a search party, a trip into the woods. The film gives the first indication of its overarching theme in a scene between Cross and his psychiatrist, when he admits that when he looks at his own son, he wonders what will happen if he is taken out of the picture. The third act loses some of its urgency, mostly because the actors playing Jason and AJ don't hold the screen well enough to pull it off. I started to wonder about the details of the world these characters live in. The party the film stages where Jason makes his fatal discovery is one of those movie parties that affluent teens seem to throw all the time in a fantasyland world where adults are absent. Do such parties exist? I suppose, but I never saw one when I was a teen. Or heard of one, either. Still, this part of the film serves a thematic function, even if the chess pieces move into their endgame places with a ritual precision that's almost too tidy for a film as digressionary as this one is. It's not a cynical film, which helps sell it. Any hint of cynicism and the whole thing would come crashing down because its nakedly earnest compulsion to absolve the sins of fathers through the lives of their sons has to be played straight. It just has to.

I've been saying bad things about Bradley Cooper for years now. I'm sure Mr. Cooper is a very nice man, but he just has one of those faces I want to punch. It's an irrational reaction, I know, but if it makes him feel any better, he's not the only hunk of man wandering around who instills the same reaction in me (Boston Celtics exec Danny Ainge used to cause the same reaction back when he was a player). In the past, I've mentioned that I like Cooper best in horror movies, where he's generally suffered horrible fates. His choice of headlining films--Limitless, for instance, or The Hangover films--well, those are hard for me to sit through. I don't know what it is about him. Imagine my surprise last year when I found myself really liking Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. The film itself has its problems, but Cooper is not one of them. I'm mildly shocked to find myself really liking Cooper in The Place Beyond the Pines, too. He gives a fine, nuanced performance as the conflicted Avery Cross, both as a callow rookie cop and then as a politician beset by still thornier dilemmas. There's a genuine likeability in his character that I haven't seen in Cooper before. Maybe it's not the actor who has rubbed me wrong. Maybe it's the material he's chosen. I'm not fond of Ryan Gosling in this movie, though. This is another laconic method performance from the actor that takes a wrong turn somewhere along the line as he tries to channel Brando. Gosling's physique may be beefy and cut beneath the scrawl of jailhouse tattoos, but his face is impassive throughout, betraying no thought or emotion, looking like a cross between Robert Mitchum and Sly Stallone. He's a tabula rasa, an iceberg who conceals everything beneath the surface, where the audience can't see it. There are plenty of well-used character faces in this film, too, including Ray Liotta and Bruce Greenwood in roles that are almost typecast. Given that the film is about men and their problems (alas), the women in the cast have to chase after scraps. Eva Mendes manages to make the most out of her role as Romina, which is no small feat. Rose Byrne, who plays Jennifer Cross opposite Cooper isn't so lucky, but Cianfrance's screenplay is even stingier to her than it is to Romina.

If I had to distill my reaction to The Place Beyond the Pines down to its bare essentials, I'd say that I'm conflicted about it. I admire it for taking on such a broad canvas, particularly in a cinematic idiom that tends to avoid this kind of swing at the fence anymore, preferring to play small ball instead. Hell, I even like its cinematic moxie even when it does look like an elaboration on COPS or a first-person shooter. That stuff is in the lexicon now, so no use railing against it. But I don't know if there's actually enough story to support the form and structure of the film. In theory, I'm all over a multi-generational film noir meditation on class, crime, corruption, and redemption. In practice, my attention began to wander before the end of the second act, and in the third, once Cooper and Gosling cede the stage to Dane DeHaan's Jason (who is perfectly fine) and Emory Cohen's AJ (who is kind of insufferable), the film loses a huge chunk of its personality. Still, it's a film that doesn't settle, even if it doesn't have the reach of its ambitions.


Dan O. said...

I like a dark gritty crime drama when I see one and at times, this was exactly it. That said, the film wasn’t perfect. Nice review Vulnavia.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Dan O. Yeah. Not a perfect film by any means, but screw it. Perfect films are boring.