The Place Beyond the Pines is a movie in three parts, tracking the lives of a doomed loser and a conflicted cop and contemplating the interlocked fates they pass on to their children. Fortunately -- this being a film that runs two hours and 20 minutes -- there are also propulsive jolts of police corruption, botched robberies and hair-raising chases. Director Derek Cianfrance’s last movie, Blue Valentine, was a powerful downbeat chamber piece; here he’s going for grand sweep, and I think his gift for mood and structure (he cowrote the script), and his trust in the talents of some fine actors, lifts the picture above whatever objections there might be to its deterministic worldview.
The story takes a number of surprising narrative turns and is packed with intricate character detail, which mustn’t be spoiled. The movie opens with a five-minute tracking shot in which we meet a motorcycle daredevil named Luke (Ryan Gosling). The camera surveys his bare torso, thick with tattoos, and then follows along behind his blond dye-job as he traverses the midway of the traveling carnival in which he works. Luke makes a bare-bones living roaring around inside a big round metal cage with two other bikers, for the entertainment of onlookers who presumably would be even more entertained if something went seriously wrong. He’s a guy whose life isn’t adding up to much, and Gosling, as effortlessly charismatic as he was in Drive, but to greater purpose, uses his eloquent stillness to project this man’s unformed yearning for something more.
Fateful shadows gather. Luke is startled to learn that a woman named Romina (Eva Mendes), with whom he hooked up on his last pass through town (we’re in Schenectady, New York), has since given birth to a baby boy – his son. Uncharacteristically, Luke feels the pull of paternal connection. But Romina and the baby are contentedly settled down with a good man named Kofi (Mahershala Ali, of House of Cards), who owns his own home and has happily taken on the role of father to Romina’s child. Luke is an unlikely candidate for solid-citizenship (his tattoo collection has crept up onto his neck and even his face), but he decides to give it a shot, delusionally hoping to win back Romina and become a real dad to their son. Quitting the carnival, he goes to work as a car mechanic for a creep named Robin (pungently unsavory Ben Mendelsohn, of Animal Kingdom). Luke needs money to finance his dream of domesticity. Robin has a plan. Luke is listening.
About a third of the way through the movie, after a rousingly cranked-up chase sequence, a new character is introduced -- a rookie policeman named Avery (Bradley Cooper) -- and the story smoothly changes lanes to follow him. Like Gosling, Cooper has a distinctive charisma; here, though, he carefully mutes it to play an increasingly wary man who seems beset by shadows. Avery has a wife and child – the happy family that Luke was fated never to have. He’s a straight-arrow cop, but when a nasty senior detective (scuzzball virtuoso Ray Liotta) starts leaning on him, we wonder how long he can resist being sucked into darkness.
The movie becomes a precinct procedural for a while. Then, as years pass, Avery becomes a politician, preoccupied with large ambitions. His now-teenage son, AJ (a fiery Emory Cohen), has grown into an abrasive young thug. One day, in the cafeteria of his new school, AJ encounters a troubled kid named Jason (an intense Dane DeHaan). The final third of the movie focuses on their interaction, and the story of Luke and Avery continues.
Is all of this too pat and predictable? Maybe. But Gosling and Cooper bring a weighty emotional conviction to their roles, and the picture plays out almost as ritual. Philosophical objections aside, the movie is a dark, hypnotic experience.
It’s not often -- not ever, in fact -- that even the clunkiest sci-fi movie will put you in mind of Battlefield Earth. The Host, however, manages it. Like that earlier John Travolta catastrophe, the new film presents a world that has been conquered by space aliens. Here, though, the intergalactic oppressors aren’t dreadlocked clods in Kiss boots; they’re glowy insects that resemble off-world silverfish, who apparently hand out lasery contact lenses to the humans whose bodies they take over. The upside of this body-snatching invasion is that the planet is now free of hunger and violence, “the environment is healed,” and everybody is very, very nice. The downside is that this global upgrade seems in several ways like a socially-engineered one-world Hell.
The movie is based on a doorstopping 2010 novel by Stephanie Meyer. Having once made a forced march through Meyer’s first Twilight book, I took her participation here as an unpromising portent. But the story -- a sort of existential romance -- isn’t the problem; it’s the picture’s execution by writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, In Time). The Host isn’t as overwhelmingly awful as Battlefield Earth, but it’s woeful in some similar ways. The action, if that’s the word, is unthrillingly limp; the picture feels under-inhabited; the characters are in some cases interchangeable; and the pictorial values – lots of dusty tan desert, soundstage caverns, and a sterile alien office (!) – are unremittingly dull.
Saoirse Ronan, so good in Hanna and The Lovely Bones, is trapped in a dual role here. As Melanie Stryder, she’s one of a group of rebel humans who falls into the clutches of the shiny-eyed Souls (as the aliens are oddly called). After having an extraterrestrial bug inserted through a slit in her neck (is this really how these creatures conquered the planet?), she becomes Wanderer – same girl, but with shiny eyes of her own and a mission to ransack Melanie’s memories for the location of her fellow partisans. Immediately there’s a problem: Although Wanderer has moved into Melanie’s body, Melanie refuses to evacuate the premises. This leads to endless silly scenes of Ronan arguing with herself – as Wanderer in the flesh and as Melanie in voice-over. Ronan does what she can with this nonsense, but – in the screening I attended, at least -- not enough to smother audience snickers.
After some light complications -- including pursuit by an alien Seeker (grim-lipped Diane Kruger) intent on dragging the runaway bug-girl back to the head office -- Melanie and Wanderer set out for the rebel stronghold in the bowels of a faraway mountain. The rebels are led by Melanie’s Uncle Jeb (William Hurt with a half-hearted ponytail), and include among their number Melanie’s generically hunky boyfriend Jared (Max Irons) and her little brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury). Jared and the rest of the unassimilated humans are all for terminating the shiny-eyed interloper, but Uncle Jeb, emotionally torn, commands forbearance. (“I’m in here!” Melanie cries in voiceover, and in vain.)
This story is not without interest. Will true love enable Melanie to somehow break out of her shell, so to speak, and reunite with Jared? Will Wanderer’s encounter with unfamiliar human passions push her over to the rebel side, or at least into a maiden bonk with one of the other generically hunky young men on hand? The Host isn’t as dire an undertaking as the Twilight films, but it exhausts what small portion of narrative vigor it has pretty early on. There’s no reason this movie should run a little more than two hours in length. A little more than two hours shorter might’ve been a better way to go.