From Derek Cianfrance, the writer/director of Blue Valentine, which was quite good, if a bit claustrophobic, comes this new, much more ambitious drama that unfolds in three parts, and sets itself up to deliver some pretty insightful observations and some fairly big points, then ends up delivering a giant basket full of nothing. The trailer sets this up as a neo-noirish crime drama among the white trash, which owes a great deal to similar images we saw of Ryan Gosling in Drive, but really turns out to be absolutely nothing like the film portrayed in the trailer. I had read the bad reviews of it, but thought it would still be very interesting and maybe better than was said about it, but not in this case.
We open by tracking Ryan Gosling as Luke, covered in tattoos, even on neck and hands, as he walks through a carnival fairground toward his job where he drives a motorbike around in a metal sphere. Thought this looked interesting in the trailer? Yeah, well, this is the first and last time you'll see it. After the show he runs into Eva Mendes as Romena, or Ro, and soon after learns that he has an infant son, which he fathered during a hookup when the fair was in town a year prior. He suddenly, and somewhat inexplicably, wants a place in his son's life, and quits the fair, his only source of income, to stay in town and force his way into Ro's life, despite the fact that she is living in the house of her new boyfriend. How is he going to live, and also provide for the baby? Well, why not rob banks? his new friend suggests. It's easier than you think!
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So Luke and friend, Robin, take to robbing banks, which works out well for a while. He and Ro grow closer, and sleep together, the whole dynamic of her with her new boyfriend, and how/why she is being unfaithful to him left unexplored. Luke takes Jason, the son, to have his first taste of ice cream at the Dairy Barn, where they take a photo of the three of them that you'll end up seeing a lot. Then Luke ends up attacking Ro's boyfriend, and gets sent to jail, and when he gets out Robin won't rob banks with him any more, so he buys a new motorcycle, and tries robbing banks himself. There's a chase, and he ends up getting caught and killed by... Bradley Cooper as Avery. Welcome to part two!
We enter part two without a formal title, just a fade to black. Avery was injured in the arrest, and meets Bruce Greenwood as an internal affairs guy. He gets out of the hospital, and is troubled. He tells a therapist that he can't look at his own young son without thinking about the young son of the man who he killed. One night Ray Liotta shows up in his corrupt cop role, which he can, and perhaps is, doing in his sleep by now (which is not to say he's not perfect at it), and takes Avery over to Ro's, where they take the stolen money that Luke gave her. During this time, Avery holds the infant Jason in his hands.
Then Avery feels bad. He asks for an ambitious promotion, but ends up babysitting the evidence room. Feeling bad about the money, he tries to give it to his boss, who freaks, and tells Liotta, who gently suggests that Avery follow him. They drive into the woods, then deeper into the woods, as it gets darker (just from woods, not sunset) and darker, until it it totally black, and Avery freaks and gets out of there. I didn't say the filmmaking wasn't excellent. Anyway, Avery puts the money in the evidence box from the case, where he finds the picture of Luke and the baby Jason. Then he collects evidence that the cops are corrupt and goes to internal affairs guy, and takes down the whole force! Then: Part Three!
And this is where everything goes psssssssssst, because parts one and two, delightful in themselves, we're all leading up to this, and as it goes on, the sensation slowly comes over us that it is steadfastly NOT adding up. It also have enough contrivances and coinkidinks to make up for the rest of the film. AJ is the son of Avery, who is now running for Attorney General! He comes to live with Avery, and the first person he makes friends with at school is--you won't believe this--Jason, Luke's son! Things sure do work out funny sometimes. AJ wants Jason to buy drugs for him, they do--and are suddenly, improbably busted! I can't comment on the logic of police work in movies, but this bust here comes a bit out of the blue (they aren't more interested in the dealer?). Avery sees that AJ is befriending Jason, and tells him--stay away! But AJ doesn't listen!
Meanwhile Jason, who is played by the troubled teen from Chronicle, is getting curious about his father, but Mom is pretty tight-lipped on the subject. His male guardian takes him out for ice cream--to the same Dairy Barn where Luke gave him his first taste of the stuff! AJ wants drugs, and Jason goes to a pharmacy where they just have Oxy-Contin sittin' right out there, behind the counter, and steals some, takes it to AJ's house--and realizes who AJ's father is! There's not much more after that, but I'll let you discover a tiny bit for yourself. There's not all that much to discover.
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If you've ever written a novel or done any creative work that takes along time, you know that after a while you start to lose touch with whether it means anything to anyone but you. Especially with novels, you work in details, and you have to be subtle for people who are paying attention, but not too subtle for people who aren't paying attention, and after a while, you just don't know. I think something like that happened here. There ARE connections, but if they add up to much of anything, danged if I can see it. And maybe the ending has some greater resonance than what I got, which is not too far from "not a single thing happens," if you're deeply involved in all the details. After watching I went home and read an interview with the director where he said something like "Luke doesn't want his son to grow up without a father, and Avery doesn't want to grow up to be his father." Well buddy, interesting... but I didn't get any of that from your movie.
The movie is well-shot, well-acted and beautifully-made. I was super into parts one and two, before three comes and you realize it's all leading up to squat. And in retrospect, having three ambitious parts means that none of them, especially two and particularly three, get the time and attention they deserve. So someone puts all his co-workers behind bars, and that has NO consequences? Except he gets promoted, but no one ever sees any of those people again? Why do AJ and Jason become friends? They're very different, not to mention that AJ looks and acts nothing like his father. It's too bad, because Gosling and Cooper do excellent work. But by the time you get to the place this movie is going, you realize that there's nothing there.
I wouldn't, but if you do, it'll be fine on video.