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TORONTO – Its mesmerizing balance of steaminess and melancholy made Blue Valentine one of the most distinctively intense American indies of the past few years. While Derek Cianfrance’s third feature, The Place Beyond the Pines, is far more diffuse and can’t match its predecessor’s extraordinarily raw intimacy, this drama about morality, guilt and the long-range reverberations of the sins of the fathers packs moments of searing power. The film’s somber tone and choppy narrative will make it a challenging entry in the marketplace, but the name cast will help.
The drama unfolds in three movements set over 15 years, with a different male character at the center of each one. Its weakness is that while the events follow in plot terms, they don’t achieve the smoothest flow, making for a film that changes course too radically and strains for thematic cohesion.
Biggest problem in the screenplay by Cianfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder is the central section focusing on Avery Cross. A rookie cop played by Bradley Cooper, he is presented as an honorable man and then conveniently puts his conscience on hold while his story arc follows what seems an inorganic direction. Far better is the gripping opening hour with Ryan Gosling as motorcycle stunt rider Luke, and the concluding section with his 17-year-old son (Dane DeHaan).
Introduced via a tight shot of his celebrated abs and a torso inked with tattoos that suggest a bruising past, Gosling’s Luke is a death-cage rider with a traveling carnival. During a stop in Schenectady, NY, he re-encounters Romina (Eva Mendes), a fling from a couple years earlier. A diner waitress going to college and living with a new partner (Mahershala Ali), Ro attempts to keep her distance despite lingering feelings for him, but Luke soon discovers that she is raising their infant son, Jason.
Compelled to get involved in the boy’s life, Luke quits his carnival job and sticks around, sparking up a friendship with seedy auto mechanic Robin (Ben Mendelsohn). As a means of raising the cash needed to get him in the fatherhood game, Robin suggests that Luke apply his motorcycle skills to bank robbery, which can only spell trouble.
While Gosling is essentially playing the two-wheel version of his Drive speed demon, the actor effectively conveys the pent-up hurt and lurking danger of a damaged man reaching clumsily for something good and pure. The deglamorized Mendes also does soulful work, while Mendelsohn follows his memorable Cannes exposure in the otherwise disappointing Killing Them Softly with another enjoyably offbeat character turn.
Visually, too, the opening act has tremendous texture, with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt using nervy handheld camera to visceral effect in pursuit scenes, and much of the more charged action played out in exciting extended takes.
At almost the one-hour mark Cianfrance abruptly removes his designated protagonist from the film, making the unfair swap of Avery, who intervenes in a robbery getaway attempt. It’s a bold move but one that doesn’t pay off, and despite Cooper’s charismatic presence, the character is inconsistently drawn. Initially conflicted about his actions, Avery’s choices become more distancing as he quits the corrupt police force and follows his well-connected father (Harris Yulin) into public office. This is another movie and a less interesting one.
The final stretch improves, with DeHaan (Lawless) making a strong impression as Jason. When he and Avery’s son AJ (Emory Cohen) meet at school, these two unsettled kids appear to feel an instinctive kinship, but as the connection between their fathers becomes clear, it dissolves into ugliness.
Rose Byrne is given little to do as Avery’s anxious wife, and Ray Liotta’s appearance as a menacing crooked cop is strictly routine. But Cianfrance generally shows again that he knows how to build immersive characterizations with his actors. And while this sorrowful triptych is uneven and perhaps overly ambitious, the director displays a cool mastery of atmospherics and tone, aided by Mike Patton’s haunting score.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Production companies: Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Electric City Entertainment, Verisimilitude
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Mahershala Ali, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, Bruce Greenwood, Rose Byrne, Harris Yulin, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Olga Merediz, Gabe Fazio, Robert Clohessy, Luca Pierucci
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Screenwriters: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Producers: Jamie Patricof, Lynette Howell, Alex Orlovsky, Sidney Kimmel
Executive producers: Jim Tauber, Matt Berenson
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: Inbal Weinberg
Music: Mike Patton
Costume designer: Erin Benach
Editors: Jim Helton, Ron Patane
No rating, 140 minutes
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