If you are discouraged by the lack of good movies in theaters in the first few months of the year, then seek out this miraculous little movie by Derek Cianfrance, the director of Blue Valentine. Most movies like this get such a small run at the major theaters that they simply do not get the audience that it deserves. Against the odds, this one actually has gotten a semi-wide release and top 10 weekend box office ranking, so everyone will have the opportunity to see this astonishing little film in its rightful format: on the big screen with a crowded audience.
The movie’s plot is one that is almost not worth mentioning, due to the inevitable accidental spoilers that might occur, so I will try to be as vague as possible. There are three storylines going on. One is about Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stunt driver who begins to use his skills for crime to provide for his former girl (Eva Mendes) and their infant son. His story collides with Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop and son of a legendary one, who gets tangled in crimes way above his pay grade. Both of these characters have strong affiliations within the story of AJ (Emory Cohen) and Jason (Dane Dehaan), two high school junkies struggling through life due to a lack of strong father figure in their lives. That is essentially what the movie is about: fathers and sons. It is about how mistakes of fathers lead to the shaping of the life and character of their sons.
Now, hearing that plot description, it would be easy to assume that this is some interconnecting story drama about fate, much like Babel, 21 Grams, Crash, or any other indie film in the last 15 years looking to find an easy audience. This is not one of those movies. The screenplay by Cianfrance, collaborating with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, is a marvel. It would have been so easy to mess this up, make it ordinary, or turn it into a genre picture. It is unlike anything I have ever seen. I cannot even put into words what this movie is able to accomplish. It has some breathtaking sequences, some disturbing scenes, and never a wasted moment. From the moment the movie started, with an extended tracking shot that Martin Scorsese would be proud of, until the lyrical, beautiful last shot of the movie, my eyes were glued to the screen. I cannot say that about any movie I have seen in a long time.
I really do mean that there is not a wasted moment in the movie. Once the story focus shifts to the next main character, the transition is seamless. It does not feel episodic or manipulative. It is edited flawlessly, even though the audience is well aware of its running time approaching 140 minutes. I have never seen a movie like this where each segment is almost in a different genre. This only adds to the appeal and authenticity of the film. I could have sat there and watched these characters go about their lives for another three hours. I was completely locked in. Cianfrance has a way with letting his actors make the scene however they want. It has imperfections, just like life has. It is not exactly Blue Valentine when there was one take done and the actors were basically being chronicled in a documentary-style experimental film. This movie has a much thicker plot, and it is as engrossing and fascinating as any picture I have seen in a year.
The reason why many will see this movie is Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, who do not disappoint. Gosling gives another form of his Drive character and gets lost in his role. Cooper gives his best performance ever. Eva Mendes is her at her most believable, and the underused Rose Byrne does a great job. Ray Liotta is typecast, but he does his thing. Ben Mendelsohn is fantastic again. He is becoming one of my favorite under-the-radar supporting guys. The movie’s biggest surprise is the work of the two younger actors. Dane DeHaan is having an incredible couple of years, and he may well be an Oscar nominee in the near future. He has this constant intensity in his face that I can only describe as being Michael Shannon-like. Emory Cohen comes on screen and immediately leaves an impression. Keep an eye on those two.
If I were to put a label on this movie, I would say it is a bit like Drive, with dashes of The Wrestler, The Son of No One, and certainly some Cop Land. It is a crime thriller and a devastating drama. It is a character study and a powerful statement about fathers and sons. It has epic ambition with a feeling of being very low-key. It has something for everyone. I hate using this term because it is thrown around so loosely, but this really is a masterpiece. It is a virtual lock for my year-end top 10 list. It is about as good as any first quarter of the year release that I have seen. Clear your schedule and go see this.
Rating: 4 stars