It’ll break Isaac Newton’s little heart but the whole gravity thing isn’t proving much of an immutable law for Ryan Gosling at the moment. The ex-Mickey Mouse Clubber only knows one direction, and that direction is as upwards ever upwards as a runaway hot air balloon.
He’s firmly established himself as the thinking woman’s crumpet of choice and pinup idol of movie bloggers everywhere, in the main thanks to three movies. And no, Murder by Numbers is not one of them.
First there was his breakthrough, Half Nelson, which put Gosling on the acting map in major manner, scoring him his to-date sole Best Actor Oscar nomination. Then there was Drive, a movie which oozed cool in such colossal neon-sheened dollops as to tip over into the kind of weird mainstream reference point where Kavinsky can be used to soundtrack an item about badger watching on Countryfile.
And what about Blue Valentine, eh? The Sundance and Cannes contender which chronicled both ends of a love affair; which became a cause célèbre when its nudie-rudey scenes fell afoul of the US censor; and which plenty of folks feel should have nabbed Gosling a second Academy Awards nod.
The director of Blue Valentine was Derek Cianfrance, and his new movie, The Place Beyond the Pines, represents a re-team for him and Gosling, who – to cut straight to the chase – delivers another fantastic performance. Inked with ragged tattoos and sporting scruffy bleached thatch, his Luke Glanton is an appealingly damaged animal, restlessly shifting between fuck-you aggression and the quiet sensitivity which leaves him silently weeping as he watches his son’s baptism from afar.
The opening stages of the movie follow Luke as he abandons his life as a travelling motorcycle stuntman to become a bank robber, putting his speed demon skills to apposite use as he streaks away from each of his crimes. And if that all sounds a bit Drive then the truth is, it is. Luke even shares the Driver’s penchant for dodgy jackets and weakness for comely single moms (the second trait showcased via his troubled relationship with Romina, played by Eva Mendes).
However, Cianfrance’s film has chapters (and runtime) galore beyond that cursory comparison. If all you’ve seen of Pines so far is the trailer that pitches it as a battle of the bohunks between Gosling’s outlaw and Bradley Cooper’s cop, Avery Cross, then you’re in for one hell of a surprise. Make no mistake, like Blue Valentine before it, this is very much a drama, with any thriller aspect fading relatively early on.
Speaking of Blue Valentine, a minor confession is due: I hated it. HATED it. With a comparable level of animus to that a Glaswegian feels toward the memory of Maggie Thatcher. What an utterly excruciating whinge-fest it was, with just one of myriad shortcomings being the demented bald cap that Gosling mystifyingly lurked under for the majority of the slog-a-thon, looking like an escapee from Babylon sodding 5.
The preposterous prosthetics take a merciful backseat in Pines (aside from some Man Without a Face puff affixed to Dane DeHaan’s pasty mush), yet BV’s overcooked, full-of-itself dramatics certainly are present and incorrect, particularly in the movie’s later stages. With its thrilling heist sequences, and Gosling magnetic in the opening third, you’ll feel the movie is heading towards an 8 or 9 out of 10. But as the scenario shifts and contorts, so the quality starts sliding and barely stops.
Running for a very long 140 minutes, you’ll think Cianfrance has completely lost it before the end. So interminable is the sense of narrative drift, it feels as if the director has completely despaired at having no clue as to how to bring things to any kind of conclusion, satisfying or otherwise, and he’s gone home for a little cry, leaving you holding his increasingly wearisome and poopy baby. Okay, to be fair, he and the movie eventually rally, but only just.
Part of the problem is the large cast. While several of the characters are skilfully sketched with the ring of truth about them (Bruce Greenwood’s snarling DA; Luke’s boss-cum-fellow bandit Robin, played by Ben Mendelsohn), there are too many who aren’t.
I don’t know if Cianfrance and either of his co-writers personally know any dirty cops or any moneyed teenage wiggas. Perhaps those are the only people they hang out with. However if that’s the case, they should really pay more attention to them before trying to put them in a movie; the crooked police in Pines, ring-led as they are by Ray Liotta’s DeLuca, are crude, snorting stereotypes – an ignominious fate aspired to by pig-boy AJ (Emory Cohen), aka Ali G’s crap-rapping younger bro.
Realised with considerably greater skill are the parallels between Luke and Avery, two kindred souls divided by the machinations of fate. The former is cracking under the pressure of sudden fatherhood, while the latter is struggling with a life lived in the shadow cast by his Supreme Court justice poppa (Harris Yulin), particularly after a devastating error leaves his integrity entirely compromised.
With this counterpointing of criminal and lawman, Cianfrance’s tale has echoes of America’s frontier past about it, even coming over a little bit Liberty Valance in its chronicle of the unfair divide between those who leave their mark on history and those who are forgotten by all but a few. Indeed, such is the breadth of the story that there’s an almost Dickensian scope to proceedings.
If only Cianfrance wasn’t so gratingly one-note in his narrative politics, seemingly locked on a perpetual downward trajectory. And yes, that might be like, real, man. But it also gets more than a little bit tedious.
The Place Beyond the Pines is released in the UK on 12 April