I was a bit surprised to find myself bored stiff about halfway through this one – on paper, I’d been quite looking forward to it. Michael Shannon is one of my favourite actors at the moment and the thought of him doing mafia contract killer seemed a perfect match. Plus there’s a strong cast: Ray Liotta, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans (not the ginger one), James Franco and the tall bloke from Friends for comedy value. But in fact it’s a fairly standard period piece set in the 70s and 80s with appropriately dreadful facial hair. I know the facial hair is accurate, I have a photo of my dad in the 70s with David Schwimmer’s exact moustache.
So what’s wrong? It’s a true story: Kuklinski (Shannon) was a psychopathic killer who worked for a low-level mobster in New Jersey (Liotta, phoning his performance in from home while putting on eyeliner). He murdered over 100 people before he was caught (maybe as many as 250), which surprised his wife and daughters who knew he was a bit naughty but didn’t worry too much about it because they had a nice house.
In a Q&A after the screening, Shannon said he’d picked up a lot from the outtakes from a series of HBO interviews with Kuklinski – still available on YouTube and as creepy as you imagine they might be. The most telling part, and the reason I think the film falls flat, is when in some of the unused footage the interviewer tries to get a bit more insight into Kuklinski’s character by pushing him to talk about what he did when he wasn’t out murdering. All he could say was that he liked to sit by the fire in his armchair. And the problem with making a film about a rather dull bad man is that it ends up being equally dull. Yes, there’s the standard flashback of his mother beating him, and we learn a little from his brother (an almost unrecognisable Stephen Dorff) about some unpleasantness at school. But both felt a bit bolted on – as if director Ariel Vromen suddenly realised he needed a bit more meat on the bone, so to speak.
It’s a shame, because the performances could have lifted this above most serial killer/wiseguy efforts. On the plus side, Shannon did a fabulous Q&A and I still love him but hopefully next time he’ll have a bit more to do than look murderously peeved (he’s about to work with Jeff Nichols again so my hopes are high).
It’s hard not to enjoy a film where Ryan Gosling gets tattooed up and drives very fast. And for a while, The Place Beyond the Pines is highly enjoyable – visually striking, stylish and with a big dollop of cool, it’s a much more ambitious film than Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. But it’s that ambition which I think dulls the impact it could have had.
The first part starts with Gosling tattooed up and driving a motorbike very fast (NB nothing like Drive, when he was tattooed up and drove a car very fast). Gosling is mesmerising as fairground stunt driver Luke Glanton who gives an old flame a lift home and comes away with a bit more than he expected – turns out he fathered a son last time he was in town. It’s a bit of a shock to the system and when the fair leaves Schenectady the next day, he hangs around aiming to make good with Romina (Eva Mendes, great but wasted) and his surprise offspring. Trouble is, the only way he can make money to impress them is by getting into trouble.
Schenectady is also home to Avery Cross, a rookie cop played by Bradley Cooper who we meet in the second part of the film. He’s ambitious, and not afraid to rub people up the wrong way to get what he wants, but there’s a sentimental streak too which his run in with Luke has left deeply buried. Avery might be doing the right thing, but it’s for the wrong reasons and he’s a hard character to sympathise with. It feels like a very different film from now on, the coolness has vanished and is replaced with a fairly stoic police procedural. Even my old favourite Ray Liotta as an evil-eyed bad cop isn’t used enough to save it.
By the final part I was bored and a bit cross (it was at this point that the woman next to me rang home to tell her folks what time she’d be back for tea). We’re 15 years or so on now and the focus is on Luke and Avery’s sons. I suspect they might have been swapped at birth – Luke’s son is quiet and fairly decent, while Avery’s is a drug taking bully. The story loses its thread here and although you can see what Cianfrance is trying to achieve, the long windedness and slightly gauche plotting meant I didn’t really care what came of them all by this point. The startling momentum of the first act is long gone.
Worth seeing for the opening scene alone, The Place Beyond the Pines lacks enough focus to be anywhere near good as it could have been. Great performances all round though, and hard not to approve of any film where Ryan Gosling gets tattooed up and drives very fast.