The opening, a long tracking shot that follows motor stuntman “Handsome” Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), as he makes his way through the carnival, lighting cigarettes, pushing through the crowd, enterting the appointed tent, fastening his helmet, and buzzing in the cage with two others, is one of the best — and will likely remain among the best of the year. It’s an inspired choice that testifies to director Derek Cianfrance’s deliberation.
Luke is one of the major characters in this play, a distinction that he’ll share with Avery (Bradley Cooper), the lawyer-turned cop and Jason (Dane DeHaan), Luke’s son. Each of them will have their own act, with the scenes intertwining as the drama unfolds throughout 15 years. Luke will quit his job to stay with his son. He will meet a local mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn) who will teach him to rob banks.
He will be pursued by Avery. Avery will rat out some crooked cops and eventually run for office. Luke’s son will befriend Avery’s without realizing their connection. And the results of that friendship and discovery of that connection will begin the cycle anew.
Cianfrance’s previous film Blue Valentine, also with Gosling, carried a similarly morose tone and followed another meticulously logical line of unfortunate events. For all the spontaneity of many scenes — the robberies and chases especially — and improvisational (sounding, at least) dialogue, he shows an immense amount of discipline. He knows the story he wishes to tell and does in a straight-forward and hard way.
I admire the film — its scope and performances and how Cianfrance keeps the beats that could be dull as short bursts of action — but his goal is so transparent that, 40 minutes from the end, we’re waiting for it to catch up. Maybe we could spot it after the first act, and we would be satisfied with the performances and look and developments of the second, which is as engaging as the first, but the third has the singular aim of fulfilling its story, without the grandeur of the preceding two.
Dane DeHaan is a good actor, but his character and arc is not as compelling as Gosling’s or Cooper’s. We go from heist to thriller to moody high-schooler. It’s a genre that can’t compete, especially for the finale of the film.
And there’s no equal within Jason’s story to the characters played by Ray Liotta, Robert Clohessy, even Eva Mendes. Mendelsohn gives an amazing performance earlier in the film, but when he’s brought back, the energy that was once there is now gone. Nor is there another shot as impressive than the opening or later the chase or the sequence when Liotta and Cooper and Liotta’s thugs storm a house to steal some stolen cash. These are excellent moments, and they’re sorely lacking later.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this is a modern-day Oresteia, and Cianfrance declares his ambition boldly with his camera and themes and even melodramatic musical cues (the hums of his chorus echo along), but the final act is no Eumenides.