Review – The Place Beyond The Pines

The gospel according to Philip Larkin espouses that, whether they mean to or not, your parents will always f**k you up and “add some extra, just for you”.

The Place Beyond The Pines marks Derek Cianfrance out as one of the most exciting and accomplished young directors out there

The Place Beyond The Pines marks Derek Cianfrance out as one of the most exciting and accomplished young directors out there

Larkin’s most famous and acerbic poem, This Be The Verse, could well have been the operating manual for director Derek Cianfrance’s absorbing and operatic second feature, The Place Beyond The Pines.

The sins of the father weigh heavily on the young sons of lawless, directionless Luke (Ryan Gosling) and rookie cop Avery (Bradley Cooper), whose lives intersect in harrowing fashion and send out shock waves that reverberate years later.

Intense motorcycle stuntman Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) in The Place Beyond The Pines

Intense motorcycle stuntman Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) in The Place Beyond The Pines

Cianfrance chronicled a relationship’s happy beginnings and painful collapse in his previous feature, the acclaimed Blue Valentine, and that film’s exploration of how bad choices made with ‘good’ intentions can come back to haunt you finds a parallel in this more ambitious and superior follow-up.

The Place Beyond The Pines also sees a reunion between Cianfrance and Gosling, whose star wattage has brightened significantly since Blue Valentine, most notably as a result of 2011’s fantastic Drive. In that film Gosling played an intense stunt performer moonlighting as a getaway driver; here he plays an intense motorcycle stuntman who discovers he has a son with ex-lover Romina (Eva Mendes).

Rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) must learn to live with a split-second decision in The Place Beyond The Pines

Rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) must learn to live with a split-second decision in The Place Beyond The Pines

Determined not to follow his father’s example Luke vows to provide for young Jason and does so by robbing a bank, but as he gets carried away he’s warned by his friend Robin (Ben Mendelsohn): “If you’re going to ride like lightning, you’re going to crash like thunder.”

Avery, meanwhile, struggles to come to terms with the aftermath of a split-second decision made in the line of duty that gradually eats away at him. Wracked with guilt, he becomes distant from his infant son AJ and wife Jennifer (Rose Byrne) and starts listening to his district attorney father, who believes Avery should utilise the hero status he gained after that fateful decision by turning his back on the police force and entering politics.

AJ (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane DeHaan) in The Place Beyond The Pines

AJ (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane DeHaan) in The Place Beyond The Pines

The film’s title derives from the loose English translation of the Mohawk word Schenectady, a city in upstate New York where the picture events are set. The city itself plays as big a part as its characters, who are all anchored to their surroundings and the pits they have dug for themselves.

Gosling is electrifying as the charismatic, but foolish Luke, equal parts Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. His method has been criticised in the past for being overly showy and inauthentic, but many of his critics were won over by his magnetic performance in Drive and here proves it wasn’t a one-off. Gosling does much of his acting with his piercing blue eyes, which can convey shame, self-hatred and sociopathy in the space of a single blink.

Romina (Eva Mendes) and Luke (Ryan Gosling) in a rare happy moment in The Place Beyond The Pines

Romina (Eva Mendes) and Luke (Ryan Gosling) in a rare happy moment in The Place Beyond The Pines

Cooper gives a career-best turn as the conflicted and guilt-ridden Avery. It’s good to see Cooper stretching himself well beyond the smug and arrogant efforts he put into The Hangover franchise and The A-Team. He proved he had chops in Silver Linings Playbook, but here gives a more rounded and reined in performance.

The superb supporting cast include Mendes, who is beautifully naturalistic as the stability-seeking Romina, the terrific Mendelsohn as deadbeat Robin and a snake-like Ray Liotta doing what he does best as corrupt cop Deluca.

A moment nicely echoed later in The Place Beyond The Pines

A moment nicely echoed later in The Place Beyond The Pines

Much of the criticism of The Place Beyond The Pines has centred on Cianfrance’s decision to include what amounts to an extended coda set 15 years after the film’s earlier events in which the now teenage sons of Luke and Avery cross paths to devastating effect. Some have found fault with the neat way in which Cianfrance ties a bow on what until then had been a freeform narrative, while others have questioned why it’s there in the first place.

I for one feel the film is enriched by the scenes involving AJ (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane DeHaan) as they provide a deeper context and nicely echo moments that have gone before. When Jason rides his bike down a country road, for instance, it brings to mind the momentary freedom Luke feels on his motorcycle. We don’t need to know what happened in those intervening 15 years, Cianfrance gives us enough to work it out for ourselves.

If Blue Valentine was an impressive calling card, The Place Beyond the Pines marks Cianfrance out as one of the most exciting and accomplished young directors out there.

Review – Killing Them Softly

The dreams and promises of politicians are almost invariably exposed as nothing more than venal sales pitches when the cold light of day of reality smacks us round the face.

Andrew Dominik's deeply cynical Killing Them Softly

Andrew Dominik’s deeply cynical Killing Them Softly

This has so rarely been the case than in 2008 when hope and change were being promised while the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression was unfolding before our eyes.

This particularly grim period of recent history serves as a running backdrop to Andrew Dominik’s deeply cynical third feature Killing Them Softly.

Gutter-level thieves Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) are hired to rob a mob-protected poker game run by low-life gangster Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). Although Trattman is the prime suspect, having previously ripped off his own game, enforcer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is drafted in to find who is responsible and set things right.

Adapted from George V Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, Killing Them Softly, as well as being a highly satisfying genre film is also a none-to-subtle metaphor for an America that, according to Cogan isn’t “a country; it’s just a business”.

Enforcer Jacki Cogan (Brad Pitt) and mob bean-counter (Richard Jenkins) in Killing Them Softly

Enforcer Jacki Cogan (Brad Pitt) and mob bean-counter (Richard Jenkins) in Killing Them Softly

Although never seen, the mob’s prescence is felt throughout like a corporate version of Big Brother. They are represented by ‘Driver’ (Richard Jenkins), a cheap-suited lackey and glorified accountant who hires Cogan to do their dirty work. The financial cost is paramount, while the human cost is irrelevant as time and again the discussions between Driver and Cogan over what needs to be done (usually killing someone) are reduced to nothing more than dollars and cents.

The social commentary is difficult to chew at times. The opening sequence with Frankie walking through a tunnel filled with newspapers being blown about in the wind intercut with a hope-filled campaign speech by Barack Obama sets out the stall, while George W Bush’s panic-averting presidential address and the subsequent global financial collapse, heard on the radio or seen on TV play throughout like some perverted Greek chorus. Just to underline it all, the movie was shot and set in post-Katrina New Orleans, a city that knows a thing or two about broken promises.

Gutter-level thieves Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) in Killing Them Softly

Gutter-level thieves Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) in Killing Them Softly

The down and dirty dialogue is a graduate of the David Mamet School of Vicious Language, while the visual flourishes adopted by Dominik lend the film an ugly beauty, most notably in a uncomfortably long scene when one poor schmuck gets an horrendous beating.

Killing Them Softly gives its entirely male cast many a memorable line and the stellar line-up lap up every one. Mendelsohn adds layers to what on paper could have been just another junkie part; Liotta’s Markie Trattman might as well be related to Henry Hill, the part he played in Goodfellas; while James Gandolfini is terrific as a down-at-heels hitman brought in by Cogan to assist with the job but who is unable to get past his own self-pity and the next drink. However, it’s Pitt who stands out, giving a superbly nuanced portrayal of a hitman who has the tools and the pithy conversation to match, but ultimately is in thrall to his paymasters and knows it.

Dominik is clearly fascinated with criminals in all their forms, whether they be the charismatic Australian murderer Mark Read in his debut feature Chopper (2000), or the enigmatic gun-slinger Jesse James is his masterful sophmore film The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford (2007). Here, they are nothing more than self-serving reprobates, existing in a hellish America where hope and change are nothing more than words on bumper stickers.