The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

★★★★

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The Place Beyond the Pines PosterDirector: Derek Cianfrance

Release Date: April 12th, 2013 (UK); April 19th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Crime; Drama

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes

The film that almost instantly springs to mind when watching The Place Beyond the Pines is Drive. Ryan Gosling stars in both, and in both he plays an outsider, a semi-vagrant. The Driver is a suave customer on the surface; he steers people away from danger in his glossy 1973 Malibu. Luke Glanton, on the other hand, trundles towards peril atop a motorcycle, common sense not in tow. For him it’s either a spherical cage of imminent perpetual risk or a bank robbery. Unlike Drive, Derek Cianfrance’s ambitious picture widens its berth to include a host of other characters. The result is an end product that is nowhere near as chiselled as the 2011 indie, at times detrimentally so, but one that should absolutely be applauded for its scope.

Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a stunt motorcyclist who travels from state fair to state fair earning a wage. Upon rekindling his relationship with a previous beau, Romina (Eva Mendes), the marauder ventures into a life of crime. That’s where he encounters Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a police officer whose moral head space is struggling under the weight of a corrupt department.

Primarily, this is the story of two people and the incessant reverberations of their actions. We meet Luke from the off, and follow him as he strolls into a bowl of hell. His job, as a stunt motorcyclist, perfectly embodies his unconventional lifestyle. The quiet, edgy nomad is someone for hire and when we first meet Luke his already dirty attire fields smatterings of blood. Instantly we feel detached, yet the revelation that he has a son enshrouds our lead with some semblance of humanity. A church scene that pits a worn out Luke as a self-realised squanderer is powerful. The constant circle of danger that flares throughout the film — the cage, his annually reloading lifestyle — succumbs to a strive for rehabilitation.

Director Derek Cianfrance then violently cuts from intense, loud robberies to sweet family days out. It works. The desperation in Luke becomes apparent; here is a character whom we’re not necessarily encouraged to get behind, nor is he somebody tarred with pitch black strokes. His criminal exploits are stark but they’re not isolated, a notion that vividly rears during a home altercation. As he, Romina — Eva Mendes is an amiable foil for Gosling, but her character suffers from a lack of clear definition — and their child are having a family photo taken, Luke relays his instructions to the taker: “Just capture the mood… the bike’s part of the family.” It is one of his few moments of solemn happiness.

On the surface, Avery Cross is different animal. He is a do-gooder, a fresh faced police officer. Avery spends his days protecting people from the likes of Luke Glanton. However, the reverberations of an incident leave him shaken, more or less infecting Avery with the same ceaseless moral dilemma prominent in the mind of his criminal counterpart. Work also becomes his escape, and his workplace is one wrought with wrongfulness too. (“But that’s the job” is a phrase of resignation constantly thrown around). This is where the film runs into its first problem. Avery is part of a crooked police department led by the viciously enrapturing Ray Liotta, but we don’t really believe it. Is the whole division corrupt? The virtuous cop’s aversion to corruption paints him with a gloss of goodness but we’re left to ponder why he is the only impartial officer.

This is the first in a chain of coincidence that ends with a major bang, though by then we’re willing to forgive. Whereas the corruption layer is a similarly fortuitous addition installed by Cianfrance and co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, it is one that rings less true, less authentic than the rest. In a sense, the director’s ambition suffers a tad as it becomes warped by sheer scope, but it shouldn’t be shot down as a result. Somewhere approaching the midpoint, the director unleashes quite the narrative swerve. The sequence is unexpected but ultimately rewarded because it endeavours to further the story, adding depth in the process. Regardless, the move signals the inception of a stunningly constructed piece of cinema.

Ryan Gosling’s work as Luke might be his best to date. The star manages to balance a controlled ferocity originating from struggle and toil, with a slice of unorthodox compassion. The Place Beyond the Pines does occasionally resemble Drive — a film whose slickness helped to paper over any cracks, a luxury not afforded here — but it is more rugged, and by proxy so is Gosling’s portrayal of Luke. As Avery, Bradley Cooper contributes with equal effort. It is true that his character follows a more recognisable and perhaps, therefore, more relatable path, but Cooper ensures there’s nothing generic about the police officer; in fact the further along we go, the meatier his role gets. Dane DeHaan’s performance is another worth singling out for praise, his stock on a seemingly unending rise.

Other factors are complimentary too. For instance, we get the raspy echoes of Bruce Springsteen rather than the melancholic waves of Kavinsky. At these points the outing hints at Scoot Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, a sentiment that gains more weight in tandem with Sean Bobbitt’s crackling cinematography. The camera stalks characters, firmly placing us amongst the people on display and invoking another degree of personableness. It’s guerrilla filmmaking finely executed.

Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to his uncompromising hit Blue Valentine retains the same empathetic tendencies as said flick, but ambitiously rolls them out over a vaster blanket. The story presents two sides of the same coin, both engaging and effective. There are dips conjured by happenstance, but nothing catastrophic. Rather, we’re attracted to Cianfrance’s portrait of life, work, consequence and connection, and it’s a well-founded attraction.

The Place Beyond the Pines - Gosling

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Focus Features

Out of the Furnace (2014)

Out of the Furnace PosterDirector: Scott Cooper

Release Date: December 6th, 2013 (US); January 29th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson

Scott Cooper’s film tells the story of two brothers left short-handed by the frankness of life, but more specifically it’s a look into the psyche of one sibling, Christian Bale’s Russell, emotionally shot and physically trapped. Out of the Furnace itself received a rough ride upon release. The cast, wasted, supersede the inefficiently constructed narrative, seemed to be the most common argument. It’s too slow, too poorly paced. Quite the opposite. The film is marvellously paced and the narrative is steeped in authentic poignancy. Sure the screenplay would benefit from a dose of balance, but Out of the Furnace is not a missed opportunity. It’s a really, really good piece of cinema.

A heart-on-sleeve type of guy, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works three jobs. Aside from earning a meagre living at the nearby mill — the same one that has rendered his father incapacitated — Russell cares for his ailing dad whilst also attempting to keep his younger brother’s mind straight. Rodney is a solider whose deployments to Iraq are as scattered as the head on his shoulders. The brothers just about get by, but their lives are quickly shattered when a horrific accident suddenly opens demon-infested floodgates.

Realism seeps into every frame, every projected wooden crevice. We’re slap-bang in the centre of a hereditary coal and steel town, North Braddock, Pennsylvania and the camera rams this home. A huge factory is often shown looming in the background, the greyish smoke pillowing skyward a constant reminder of toxicity and waste. It hosts the eponymous furnace and endeavours to promote the air of struggle of its nearby citizens, but also their honest willingness to work. Already we’re drawn to Russell who embodies this mentality, a grafter by trade. Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is musky — you’d be forgiven for any eye-rubbing to remove dust — and perfectly captures the mood of the town; filled with hard labourers and harder folk. It screams ‘get me out of here’.

Russell is a hearty soul, a trait that beams as he interacts with those close to him. Lena is his girlfriend at the beginning and their playfulness is infectious. Uncle Gerald, or ‘Red’, is another whom we watch engage positively with Russell. But it’s the latter’s relationship with his wayward brother Rodney that’s most genuine. They share an at times awkward yet always nurturing bond, one that is believable partly due to how Bale and Casey Affleck play it, but we’re also convinced by the harshness of reality and their subsequent eternal earnestness as a duo. Not much is going according to plan but these two remain decent guys with admirable qualities who are not impervious to the odd mistake. (Some mistakes very serious — Scott Cooper doesn’t shirk away from complexity).

Existing subserviently in manner but not meaning to this sibling relationships is Russell’s own personal battle with day-to-day existence. He’s mentally more mature than his brother; at one point it’s suggested that Rodney “might be safer over in Iraq” than wandering the chalky streets of North Braddock. The screenplay simmers patiently, as does Cooper’s precise direction, allowing us to connect with Russell and his unluckiness. But even as pillar after pillar collapses in the manual worker’s life, we’re afforded the chance to acknowledge the sincerity of each problem because they’re all completely applicable within the prevailing context.

In Russell, Cooper revives the teetering tragedy of Crazy Heart’s Otis Blake. In some ways the two mirror each other: in their jobs, slaving away without much financial reward; in their protectiveness, one for a son he never had and one for a brother he fears losing; in their mentality, both close to defeat yet deeply defiant and inspired by externalities. Out of the Furnace is the director’s second character study of two and is equally as effective as the first. The camera likes to linger on glances and facial expressions — not Russell’s exclusively — and so we’re able to feed off of each characters’ strained thoughts and the cast’s wholesome portrayals.

Christian Bale does for Casey Affleck here what Mark Wahlberg done for Bale in The Fighter. He underplays the performance, clearing room for Affleck’s hysterics. These range from anxiously proud to uncomfortably harrowing, but are consistently sterling. Bale’s is certainly the toughest role because restraint is absolutely key. He nails it. However, as Rodney, Affleck is stand out performer. Which is some feat considering the truly excellent efforts relayed by the remaining cast members. Woody Harrelson appears as Harlan DeGroat, an invasive and psychotic drug dealer whom Rodney owns money to. Harrelson’s recruitment is a great choice, his character a real baddie. A grizzled, rugged no good son of a bitch. Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Willem Dafoe complete the star-studded selection and the trio each donate valid performances.

If there is a fault to be picked and presented, it’s the unfortunate imbalance in narrative. The runtime is fine at almost two hours, but over half of that is enlisted as set up leaving only around 50 minutes for retaliation. The problem is not catastrophic — it likely would be in lesser hands — but it does dent an otherwise foolproof outing, incurring unevenness as opposed to equity. In an attempt to disguise the issue, we’re subject to interplayed cuts between scenes that actually do end up harmonising well together.

Out of the Furnace is another winning film from Scott Cooper. It’s worth pointing out the effective soundtrack that shifts between a Western twang and a mellow ambience, and one that is capped off by Pearl Jam’s Release. For that’s what the piece is all about, release. A very sombre picture with sporadic healing tendencies — though not enough — it is the recognisable mundaneness that really hits home.

Rating: 4 (White)

Out of the Furnace - Bale

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Relativity Media

Crazy Heart (2009)

★★★★

Director: Scott Cooper

Release Date: February 5th, 2010 (US); March 5th, 2010 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Music; Romance

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Colin Farrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Folkish melodies and acoustic guitar strums are the backbone of Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart, a charming tale about a worn out country musician who finds hope and inspiration in a new, unexpected romance as he tries to get his career — and life — back on track.

Jeff Bridges is Otis “Bad” Blake, an ageing country singer/songwriter devoid of much enthusiasm unless alcohol is present. Maybe he lived a more frivolous and extravagant lifestyle in his younger years, but nowadays his tours consist primarily of small town bars and bowling alleys. If he makes it through a set list without choking on a beverage or vomiting in a bin, he’s probably having a pretty good day. Bridges is excellent as Blake and delivers equally well in conversation as he does in song. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s youthful journalist Jean Craddock is a recent divorcee who catches the eye of Blake and emblazons him with a new lease of life. The two actors strike up a a very equitable dynamic and make a seemingly unrealistic relationship, a believable one.

Just as Blake and Craddock’s romance progresses and the country man’s life and career both begin to reattach themselves to the rails, Blake encounters a number of alcohol induced demons, including a number of unsavoury incidents involving a car accident and Craddock’s four-year-old son, whom Blake has come to care dearly for. These issues increasingly drive a wedge between the pair and as their relationships begins to unravel, the film starts to lurch over the edge, peering cautiously into the depths of despair and darkness. Teetering on the edge of the abyss is as far as the drama gets however, as the film does not quite have the courage of its convictions.

And that is the main problem with Crazy Heart (perhaps the only problem). Too often characters are faced with a level of pain and anguish which, if prompted a little more, would generate additional degrees of empathy and frustration for them — and Blake in particular — from the audience. For a man who is surviving mainly on scraps and minuscule effort, who finds a beacon of light through love and family and who then goes on to throw all of that joy and security away by making stupid decisions, Blake seems to be dealing with life relatively well. Yes, he has a drinking problem, but he has the same drinking problem at the beginning of the film as he does after the collapse of his relationship. Scott Cooper is very close to writing and directing a perfect fable of loss and redemption, but the tone of Crazy Heart lingers a touch too high when it should be free-falling a great deal lower – Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is an example of a film that shares many similar narrative elements with Crazy Heart, but which hits depths lower than Cooper’s film and is all the better for it, albeit more heart-wrenching.

However, what Crazy Heart does not have in depth-plummeting ordeals, it makes up for in wonderful characters, tremendous performances and an incredible plethora of music. Produced in part by Coen favourite T-Bone Burnett, the soundtrack to the film has bounce and soul and meaning; it is no surprise that the film’s headline song “The Weary Kind” went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Often the songs develop the characters, be it through Colin Farrell’s rendition of “Gone, Gone, Gone” establishing his young, successful Tommy Sweet, or Jeff Bridges’ interpretation of “Fallin’ & Flyin'”, which perfectly describes both the singer’s previous ambitions and current realisations (“Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’ for a little while”). Burnett’s musical involvement in filmmaking rarely signals disappointment, and his work here is another shining example of getting it right.

Jeff Bridges is the stand out performer in a film where much of the focus is on him, delivering a performance which returned the second of the film’s two Academy Awards in 2010. He is a part of just about every scene, yet his presence is always welcome and never wearisome. Bridges emits near-defeat and hopeful optimism in equal measure when required, his emotions often dictated by the outcome of interactions with the protégé-turned-star Sweet or the smitten Craddock. Robert Duvall even makes an appearance as Blake’s lifelong friend Wayne, contributing melodically to match.

When the foot stomping ends and the guitar strings go silent, Crazy Heart simmers down to a very enjoyable film that boasts an exceptional lead performance and is littered with great songs, each of which do their job in encapsulating the moment. It doesn’t quite hit the perfect note all of the time, but it is not a long way off.