This blog entry contains spoilers.
In the opening scene of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines
(2012), a carny daredevil, Luke (Ryan Gosling), walks from his dressing room to a nearby tent where he and two other guys drive motorcycles around the inside of a metal sphere. Perhaps as an homage to a similar scene in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull
(1980), Cianfrance films this action in a virtuoso long take, the real subject of which is its own audacity. That is, once Luke gets inside the metal sphere, one isn’t wondering what the character is going to do next so much as how long the shot will go on and if Gosling is really on that motorcycle. For better or for worse, this shot is emblematic of the movie as a whole, which seems to exist primarily to show that Cianfrance is capable of making a big, sprawling epic in the manner of swaggering New Hollywood auteurs like Scorsese and Brian De Palma.
If the film’s bid for epic grandeur strikes me as a little strained, that’s because the banality of the characters is so much at odds with Cianfrance’s efforts to turn their lives into a kind of contemporary Greek tragedy. The first part of the story centers on Luke, who knocks up a girl from Schenectady (Eva Mendes) and later starts robbing banks in order to provide for his infant son, Jason. The focus then shifts to an earnest cop, Avery (Bradley Cooper), and as the two men cross paths only once, the movie depends on parallelism to unify its plot. In particular, both men have sons the same age, and in the film’s final segment, the two boys become friends as teenagers, each unaware that a chance meeting between their fathers fifteen years earlier helped to shape the course of their entire lives. But while the plot sometimes feels a bit contrived, on a scene-by-scene basis, the filmmaking is lively and gripping throughout. Specifically, in the climatic confrontation between Avery and Jason (played as a teenager by Dane DeHaan), the suspense is doubled as it’s not clear if Jason’s already killed Avery’s son, AJ (Emory Cohen). The movie is 140 minutes long, and if nothing else, I can’t say that I was ever bored.
Much more modest in scale but no less moving for it, Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew
(also 2012) is solely concerned with the effects of a divorce on the couple’s young daughter. The title character (Onata Aprile) is a primary school student who finds herself being shuttled back and forth between her parents after her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), kicks her father, Beale (Steve Coogan), out of the apartment. However, as both of them are too busy with their careers to look after her, Maisie increasingly becomes the responsibility of their new spouses: the girl’s former nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham), and a lovable bartender, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård), with whom Maisie has a special rapport. As the title suggests, the narration is restricted to Maisie’s range of knowledge throughout, motivating a number of ellipses in the plot, so that the viewer judges the adult characters based primarily on their parenting skills.
Accordingly, as it only becomes apparent that Beale has been carrying on with Margo when Maisie goes to visit him at his new apartment, one can’t tell if the affair was the chief cause of the breakup or if the marriage was already in trouble when it began — and therefore, whether or not Margo is a home-wrecker and a floozy. What is clear, however, is that she put a great deal of time and effort into preparing a room for Maisie at Beale’s new pad, indicating that Margo is a more suitable mother than Susanna, who’s not unloving but doesn’t want to make the sacrifices necessary to be a parent. (At one point, she throws a small party for her music industry friends on the same night that Maisie has a classmate to the apartment for a sleepover.) Similarly, while Lincoln accompanies Maisie to a puppet show and then the park to look at turtles, when Beale takes her out, it’s to a fashionable restaurant rather than someplace that would appeal to a child. Therefore, if there’s something of a shadow over the movie’s ostensibly happy ending, it’s not that Maisie’s been abandoned by her biological parents so much as the unlikelihood of them simply turning her over to Margo and Lincoln.