Derek Cianfrance's last project, the much-admired Blue Valentine, was as intimate as stories get, a microscopic look at a relationship’s lifespan largely told in the moments only the couple themselves see. At times it felt almost intrusive to watch. His follow-up is not nearly so shy, spreading itself much wider for an ambitious story about the fates of men whose lives are entangled by a single second of panic.
Ryan Gosling is sideshow motorcyclist ‘Handsome Luke’, a man so devoid of any real identity that even his signature is his full stage name, in childish block capitals, a little shout that he is someone. A woman from his past (Eva Mendes) brings both the possibility of a better life and a surprise baby, but in the absence of any real employment prospect he turns to bank robbery to provide for her and the son he’s just discovered. And awry things go. This criminal life unites his path with that of Avery (Bradley Cooper), a beat cop with quiet ambition, and ties both of them to disaffected school kid Jason (Dane DeHaan).
You have to want to go on the journey with Cianfrance because he’s not one for rushing anywhere, preferring to hang out with his characters and let the story seep out of them, mundane conversations giving up nuggets of the past and, when they’re good and ready, a bit of forward momentum. Frequently this can be absorbing and lovely. The early scenes, focused on Gosling’s Luke, relax in the confidence of having a character of such burning charisma — heavily tattooed, brilliant at riding motorbikes, lives at the circus, wears retro T-shirts inside out without looking like his mum got him dressed in a hurry — that as an audience you’ll happily watch him do anything, like admiring the school cool kid from afar. The opening shot is just one long take following Luke from his trailer to his motorcycle, but it’s enough to immediately make you want to know more about this guy who has the job you thought you wanted when you were nine. There’s a languid, last days of summer feel to it, particularly in the flirty scenes between Gosling and Mendes.
At other times this strolling style hurts the film. In its later stages the story pulls into thriller territory, with some disappointing reliance on coincidence and contrivance, and Cianfrance is not so strong at telling his story in a hurry, ending up with a jerky, stumbling pace that equally rushes and wanders. As he beefs up the amount of plot, his characters become thinner and thinner, drifting away just when you should be caring more and more about their fates. Only one of the main characters’ stories ends with any real thump.
Yet any disappointments with the film are because there’s so much that’s great. The opening 40 minutes are a dream, and if it had carried on at that level, this might have been one of the best films of the year. The cast all push themselves to do surprising things with characters with whom they could have coasted — you might think you know what you’re getting from Gosling as a stunt rider, Cooper as a cop and Mendes as a confused romantic, but you don’t. So the slowly diminishing returns feel not like a movie becoming in any way bad, because it’s always so very far from being bad, but rather the gradual slipping away of something very special.