What is Danny Boyle on about? The British director's movies used to have both substance and the fast cuts and high style that he's known for—Trainspotting, 28 Days Later—but they've been sliding downhill, the stories gradually being eclipsed by cinematic and cinematographic pyrotechnics.
Not that there's anything wrong with a good entertaining explosion or scare or heartstring-tug, and Boyle has range enough to pull this off: the science fiction thriller Sunshine posed interesting questions about duty; Slumdog Millionaire, for its deficiencies, was a crowd-pleaser; and 127 Hours gave James Franco an opportunity to prove he can actually act, provided one arm is pinned beneath a boulder.
But after watching Trance, I'm scared he's stopped worrying about pesky things like stories and characters altogether and just started waving shiny objects (guns, skylines, naked people) in the audience's direction as a distraction. Trance is a manic glassy nightmare of a film, or rather, a manic glassy nightmare of a pastiche, with way too many films crammed into its 101 minutes. It's a graphic shoot-em-up. Also an intellectual thriller, the sort that tries to be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but winds up just being one of those movies that jumps out from behind the couch and yells, surprise! It was all a dream, maybe?
Simon (James McAvoy) is an art auctioneer with a high-stakes gambling problem who conspires with some art thieves (led by the eternally-creepy Vincent Cassel as Frank) to steal a Goya painting and pay off his mountain of debt. There are altogether too few films about art theft, so this premise seems promising—that is, until Simon gets knocked on the head by Frank and forgets where he left the painting.
So naturally, he goes to hypnotist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), wearing a wire so the goons in the van out front can hear what he says while he's under, and tells her he lost his keys. It quickly becomes clear that she can help him find both his keys and what he's actually looking for, and he begins to trust her—so much so that he becomes obsessed with her. But then, so does Frank.
Cue also a blurring of reality and a hypnosis-induced hallucination that's so confusing I'm not totally sure Boyle knows where the line between the two is. Who is in league with whom? Where's the painting? Does anyone care anymore? Is it really necessary to have this much grisly imagery plus plenty of slow pans across various angles of Dawson's naked body and McAvoy's bare backside in this movie?
The acting, of course, is terrific: Dawson, Cassel, and McAvoy all think they're in a much better film than they actually are, which is maybe for the best, as it's Trance's performances that keep it from sinking entirely into the mud. But the critical metaphors are almost too easy: like the painting they're all ostensibly looking for, this movie lacks a core: it's a gilded frame without a heart, or art; it wants to hypnotize us into thinking it's terrific, since the truth is too hard to bear—you get the idea.
Frankly, Boyle is too good of a director to have made Trance. It might be more forgivable in the hands of a younger, more inexperienced director. Maybe we could pardon the luminescent hollowness if it came from someone who's still working out the kinks, someone with a promising career ahead of him.
Actually, that someone might be Derek Cianfrance, whose breakout feature, the devastating Blue Valentine, starred Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams and released in 2010 to broad critical acclaim. His new project, the father-son drama The Place Beyond the Pines, also stars Ryan Gosling, who more or less reprises his role from Drive—complete with sneer, heart of gold, and sweet leather jacket—as Luke, a talented, emotionally stunted motorcycle rider with a violent streak. Traveling with the carnival as a cage rider through the once-bustling, now depressed city of Schenectady, a few hours north of New York City, he discovers that his fling with Romina (Eva Mendes) during last year's tour resulted in a baby son.
Luke feels a new sense of responsibility toward Romina and baby Jason. He quits the carnival and starts to look for work in Schenectady to support them. The trouble, of course, is there's already another man in the picture, and though Romina is still fond of Luke, she's also (justifiably) skeptical that he's going to stick around, dubious about his ability to earn money or commit to anything.
But Luke is determined, and, in an effort to provide for Romina and Jason, falls in with a friend who suggests they start robbing banks. It's surprisingly easy, ripping off local places—but of course, it sets Luke on course to cross paths with Avery (Bradley Cooper, thoroughly clean shaven and for once not looking like a leading man at all), a rookie cop who's struggling with his own ethical dilemmas and obligation toward wife and baby son. Avery has a series of choices to make—some which may leave him languishing in evidence-room obscurity, others which could propel him up the ladder. And fifteen years later, Luke's and Avery's sins will be visited on the heads of their sons.
Props to Cianfrance and co-writer Ben Coccio for trying out a tricky story structure, because it almost works. Most movies have three acts: the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution. There's a protagonist and an antagonist, and along the way these characters typically confront obstacles, experience a big twist, come to a crisis point, and experience some kind of wrap-up.
Cianfrance and Coccio employ all those conventions, save one: they let the roles of protagonist and antagonist float freely and shift between characters, and so the film feels more like interlocking short stories, each with its own lead, than one coherent narrative. It's an interesting way to span time and show how the consequences of actions—of theft, of careless flings, of seemingly small choices—can irrevocably alter lives.
But to make this sort of narrative work, each act would need its own internal arc, as well as one overarching through-line, and that's what's missing in The Place Beyond the Pines. It's got everything else: a crack cinematographer in Sean Bobbit, who can pull off both impressively long tracking shots and gorgeous landscapes, and a tremendous cast in Gosling, Cooper, and especially Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan, the relative newcomers who play the sons. But without a strong story, we struggle to care.
Plus, the film feels amateurish in spots, especially when it falls back on some too-easy devices, things that work better in literature than in the movies. For instance, stock casting for stock characters: can we all agree that Ray Liotta never gets to play a dirty cop again? Or heavy-handed symbolism—let's avoid having characters just coincidentally face a reckoning in the same exact spot in the forest, fifteen years apart. It might work on paper, but when we see it on screen we just have to heave a sigh.
That said, there's something about The Place Beyond the Pines that grows on you—something tragic, something that sits uncomfortably in the gut. The choices the characters must make aren't easy, with clean-cut morals. In fact, for their deficiencies, it's worth noting that both Trance and The Place Beyond the Pines ask us to walk a tricky line: with the characters, we must sort out how to live in a world where the right thing is rarely the most attractive thing. Not that right and wrong are ambiguous; rather, we squirm, suspecting that confronted with the same choice, we, too, would have a hard time taking the righteous path. It's good for us as viewers to experience that along with the characters, and given time, let's hope, Cianfrance (and Boyle, for that matter) will make a film worthy of such subject matter.
The Family Corner
Both movies earn their R ratings. The Place Beyond the Pines restricts its violence largely to gunshots, robberies, and fistfights, which might be disturbing but aren't graphic. Teenagers take drugs, drink, and party. Everyone uses plenty of bad language, and there's one scene with two characters in bed together, nude, though we don't technically see much. Trance, by contrast, does have several very grisly scenes of violence (one hallucinated, one not) in which people get shot—nay, blasted—in the head and the groin, lots of bad language, and several scenes of nudity, both male and female, some very explicit. A male character is shown beginning to force himself onto a female. The main character also has a severe gambling problem.
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