When director Derek Cianfrance and star Ryan Gosling collaborated on the grim, but excellent "Blue Valentine" in 2010, they explored the dissolution of a married couple's relationship. Two years later, they're at it again with yet another personal journey about the relationship between fathers and sons. The results are no less impressive than their previous delivery and, this time, arguably better.
Motorcycle stunt rider Luke (Ryan Gosling), meets one of his old flames Romina (Eva Mendes). It turns out that Romina has a son and Luke is the father. Luke then decides that he wants to provide for him but it leads him into robbing banks where he crosses the path of a rookie but ambitious policeman (Bradley Cooper). Their altercation ends up affecting more people than they ever expected.
A triptych movie - divided into three parts - where Cianfrance adopts a deliberate pace and allows his characters the space to grow and develop. First off, this is the most impressive element to the film; the characters are all three-dimensional with deeply emotional drives and motivations as Gosling, Cooper, Dane DeHaan and relative newcomer Emory Cohen, all get ample time to find their feet and get into their roles in each of the chapters. Despite the maleness on show, a solid Eva Mendes flits in between them with an impressive turn in what is a very underwritten role. It's through the committed performances that we are easily able to identify with each the characters and become embroiled in their tangled relationships, that spans a generation. Cianfrance's scope is highly ambitious and for the most part, very successful. In the first third he focuses on Gosling's, Luke and his life of crime while striving to support his family and delivers some very intense heist scenes, one after another (all the more impressive as they were apparently done in one take). Much like his performance in "Drive", Gosling combines good and bad so well. He's able to exude an innocence but also an underlying darkness that few actors that achieve. It's this very combination of qualities that has Gosling at the forefront of contemporary performers. There is an absolute smouldering intensity to him. Then, just as we're getting to know Luke, the film takes a shift towards Cooper's tortured police officer, Avery Cross, in the mid-section. The blending and shift in tone is seamless and impressively delivered but as much as I was a big admirer of Cooper's recent, Oscar nominated performance, in "Silver Linings Playbook", he doesn't quite have the gravitas to make this role work for him in the same way. He does well and can't be faulted too much, but he's too blue-eyed to cut it as a tortured soul here. The intensity that Gosling brings to his role is the very thing that Cooper fails to capture. This may be slightly unfair on Cooper as he's by no means bad, but it only serves to show how strong Gosling is. His performance actually permeates the remainder of the film once he gone but it does still stumble without his presence.
Cianfrance then goes on to finish the saga by audaciaclly jumping 15 years ahead. At this point, the director fully states his ambition and although admirable, he also stretches credulity somewhat. That being said, the film is so well delivered that it's acceptable and just about gets away with it. Unfortunately, the father/son relationship that runs deep within becomes a little muddled and relies far too heavily on a coincidental encounter. With Cianfrance stretching his canvas so far it almost tears apart, held only with the most tenuous of threads. His ambition is almost too vast in relation to his material or more appropriately his running time. I could easily have watched another half hour for the latter characters to be fully rounded and any shaky plot developments ironed out.
However, the more I'm writing this, the more I'm realising that I'm being quite critical. It's not my intention to put this film down, I'm merely pointing out the things that stop this film from being a five star experience. It's very nearly there and I enjoyed it immensely.
Vast, immersive and marvellouslly assembled. Cianfrance really seems to know his stuff when piecing his stories together. "Blue Valentine" was proof of that already but he goes another step further here and the results are no less impressive. It's early doors, but so far, this is the best of 2013.