The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - Evan Wil­liams

★★★★✩ National re­lease

T(MA15+) HE epic is out of fash­ion th­ese days. It was once de­fined as a film con­ceived on a spec­tac­u­lar scale, fo­cus­ing on the ac­tions of a great hero (usu­ally a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure), with a cast of thou­sands and an oblig­a­tory run­ning time of at least three hours. That sort of epic has been frowned on in Hol­ly­wood for about a half cen­tury — ever since Cleopa­tra de­stroyed some no­table rep­u­ta­tions and came close to bankrupt­ing Fox in 1963.

But there’s still a place, thank good­ness, for the am­bi­tious film with lofty ideas. I’d call Derek Cian­france’s The Place Be­yond the Pines an epic. It has no more than a half dozen main char­ac­ters, no bat­tles, no crowds, no great speeches or spec­ta­cles, and most of it was shot in a ru­ral back­wa­ter in up­state New York. But it’s epic in its emo­tional range, its depth, its eye for truth. With a nar­ra­tive span­ning three gen­er­a­tions, it may sig­nal a re­turn to the grand tra­di­tions of Hol­ly­wood sto­ry­telling.

Cian­france made the haunting ro­man­tic drama Blue Valen­tine in 2010, and The Place Be­yond the Pines has a sim­i­lar emo­tional in­ten­sity. In some ways the films com­ple­ment each other, with their doomed lovers, their mood of tragic fu­til­ity. But his new film is a much more spir­ited and en­gag­ing one. Es­sen­tially it’s a crime story, and I’ve seen it com­pared in all se­ri­ous­ness with The God­fa­ther, per­haps the great­est crim­i­nal epic of all. But the crimes com­mit­ted in Cian­france’s film are petty and am­a­teur­ish by com­par­i­son. There are no rul­ing fam­i­lies, no dy­nas­ties, no drug lords, no ex­e­cu­tions. The ac­tion un­folds on an in­ti­mate scale and there is some­thing en­dear­ingly folksy, even comic, in the ex­ploits of the char­ac­ters. But not far be­low the sur­face is a sim­i­lar world of sin­is­ter re­al­ity, of vengeance, of be­trayal, of cor­rup­tion. The ef­fect is chill­ing and strange.

It is re­ally three films in one, each with a be­gin­ning and an end, each with its prin­ci­pal char­ac­ter. And how re­fresh­ing it is — in an age of vac­u­ous block­busters — to find a Hol­ly­wood drama in which a com­plex nar­ra­tive un­folds log­i­cally and the char­ac­ters are clearly de­fined. The prob­lem for re­view­ers — a fa­mil­iar one — is to avoid giv­ing too much away. Cian­france (who wrote the screen­play with Ben Coc­cio and Dar­ius Marder) has in­cluded one or two bru­tal plot twists that are an or­ganic part of the film’s struc­ture. It’s hard to dis­cuss the film with­out de­scrib­ing them. But at the risk of con­fus­ing read­ers, I’ll do my best.

The set­ting is Sch­enec­tady, New York, and we open with a bravura track­ing shot through a crowded fun­fair. The cam­era fol­lows a few me­tres be­hind the back of the man in front, who is head­ing with pur­pose­ful stride to­wards his des­ti­na­tion, stop­ping at last be­fore one of those spher­i­cal cages in which mo­tor­cy­cle stunt rid­ers do their stuff. This is Luke Glan­don (Ryan Gosling), who loses no time revving up his bike and join­ing two other rid­ers in the cage. It’s a breath­tak­ing se­quence, alive with mys­tery and dan­ger. But stunt-rid­ing may be Luke’s only skill. We sense — and Luke prob­a­bly thinks him­self — that with a lit­tle more luck he coulda been a con­tender. With his blond hair, non­cha­lantly droop­ing fag and co­pi­ous tatts, he has the sleazy al­lure of the young Brando or James Dean’s way­ward spirit in Rebel With­out a Cause. Af­ter his dare­devil ride he seeks out his for­mer lover Rom­ina (Eva Men­des), who sur­vives with ca­sual work at the fun­fair. ‘‘ Who’s that guy?’’ asks Luke, in­di­cat­ing the year-old tod­dler in Rom­ina’s arms. ‘‘ He’s yours,’’ says Rom­ina.

Luke may be dumb, but he has a con­science, and re­solves to sup­port Rom­ina and baby Ja­son. (Never mind that Rom­ina is al­ready liv­ing with Kofi, a bel­liger­ent black guy who takes a dim view of Luke’s sud­den emer­gence on the do­mes­tic scene.) But how can Luke find money to sup­port his child? Robin (Ben Men­del­sohn), an old crony who runs a car re­pair yard, sug­gests they rob a few banks — and hey, it’s not a bad idea. With his rid­ing skills, Luke can make a quick get­away on his mo­tor­bike and hide his bike (and the cash) in the back of Robin’s van.

The scheme works nicely — for a while. Gosling is an elec­tri­fy­ing pres­ence in th­ese early scenes, and the heists are as tense as any­thing in

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