You’re not going to learn it from the movie itself, but the poetic title of Derek Cianfrance’s latest is an English translation for Schenectady, the Mohawk-derived name for the New York town where it’s set. That’s a clue: For what’s basically a grubby sins-of-the-father story, the mood here is grander than expected—mythic, portentous and likably heavy, even in its overreach. We start in Dardenne-brothers territory, as a mysterious, tattooed carnival stunt biker (Ryan Gosling) awakens to his status as a father, bailing on the circus to provide for his infant son by robbing banks. We’re too close to Drive to see this performance as anything special, but when Suicide’s “Che” churns to life on the soundtrack and Gosling peels out, there are thrills to be had.
Cianfrance has too much love for this blond Robin Hood to judge him all that harshly, and just as our hero is cornered by the law, we’re asked to switch allegiance to the “hero cop” (Bradley Cooper) who enters the tale, also a young parent and surrounded by bad influences. (In his case, it’s a corrupt precinct dominated by the ever-menacing Ray Liotta.) The shift feels like whiplash—another one’s in store, when we jump 15 years ahead to see the fates of the two kids—and there’s a distinct feeling that the movie is trapped in its own pop psychology. Yet after the actorcentric fireworks of Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010), it’s impressive to see him going after a wider sociopolitical scope, one that would have been better served by a less repetitive structure. Even if the place beyond the pines is just Schenectady, the ambition will lead to higher ground.
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