Director: Derek Clanfrance, 2012 (R)
Following his critically-aclaimed but dark and depressing debut, Blue Valentine, which also featured Ryan Gosling, Derek Clanfrance brings an ambitious but ultimately disappointing movie about fathers and sins and the consequences of generational sin. Despite some terrific acting, the narrative fails to realize the potential of the director’s vision.
The film is set in Schenectady, New York, a blue-collar town. Interestingly, the name Schenectady comes from the Mohawk tongue and means literally, “the place beyond the pines”. Metaphorically, the title refers to a place in the forest beyond the town where three key meetings occur, one in each act, to drive the main characters to action. But it is a forced use of the place that seems unlikely in reality.
We meet Luke (Ryan Gosling) in the initial scene, a long tracking shot that sees him from behind, shirtless and tatted-out, walking through a carnival fairgrounds to a tent for cage riders. Like his character in Drive, Gosling is silent and mysterious, a motorcycle rider that performs cage riding in a nomadic lifestyle. But this time, Romina (Eva Mendes, The Other Guys) shows up, an old flame with a new secret. She has birthed his child, Jason. When he discovers this truth unexpectedly, he quits his job and determines to win her back, despite the fact that she is now in a relationship with another man, one who is far better suited to a normal and lawful lifestyle.
Luke has no real skills, except his riding abilities, and a chance encounter with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), a redneck loner, puts him on a path to self-destruction. While working for Robin for minimum wage, Robin suggests they rob banks, thereby utilizing Luke’s unique skills. And he is good at it. Until he runs into the sights of rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook). This intersection leads to devastating consequences for both men.
One of the failures of the movie is its limitation of the screen time between these two actors. Perhaps the hottest young actors working today, the trailer suggests we will see them facing off against each other in a long-standing hunt, much like Pacino and DeNiro in Heat. Not so. Their screen time together is less than the time needed to brew coffee.
The second failure is the lack of an overriding narrative for the whole film. Clanfrance divide the film into three acts, as most movies are. But each act forms its own story, interlinked by the theme of fathers and sons. Seeking to be an epic American Gothic crime story that spans generations, perhaps akin to The Godfather trilogy, it fails because the stories are not well-connected.
The first act, featuring Gosling, is terrific. Gosling conveys a palpable sense of repressed sexual tension and violence with his slow moves. And when each surfaces, it is swift and sure. He is a man underestimated at huge cost, a cost to both parties.
When the film moves abruptly ahead fifteen years, the story shifts to the two sons. The film of the fathers becomes the film of the sons. And it loses its way. The glib one-line from a character in act one, “If you ride like lightning, you’re going to crash like thunder,” feels like a prophetic criticism of the film itself. It crashes in act three, as we really don’t know enough about the two kids to form an emotional connection. We simply don’t care. And the film drags on about 30 minutes too long.
The second theme follows from the first and is less vocal but more clear: the sins of the past haunt the present. Or to be even more focused: the sins of the fathers are passed on to the sons. This is a biblical concept, oft misunderstood, that arises in the second commandment in the Decalogue: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents” (Exod. 20:5). There are consequences of generational sin. It does not mean a person is held accountable for the sin of another. Rather, it means we learn from our parents. We do what we see. When we see sin modeled for us by our parents when we are young we unconsciously embrace it and take it on ourselves. When our fathers sow sin in the fields of their sons, they will reap sins in the generational harvest later.
Generational sin is evidenced in the film in the lives of the sons. But whereas the fathers offer no hope, the Father does in the life of Jesus Christ. We cannot avoid sin. But Jesus offers us freedom from sin and condemnation (Rom. 8:1).
Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs