Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance's (Blue Valentine) latest is beautiful to look at. Long, skillful tracking shots, impeccably composed cinematography from Sean Bobbitt (Shame, Hunger, United 93) and a mournful, overcast tone throughout. It's art house-pretty, got a lot on its mind and runs a sprawling 150 minutes, going for big ideas about generational dysfunction and genetics-based behavioral doom, all that Sins of the Fathers stuff. Cianfrance even tips his thematic hand in the opening sequence when Ryan Gosling covers up his cruddy-tattoo-afflicted torso with a cruddy T-shirt and goes to his cruddy job, one where he daredevil-rides a motorcycle in a dangerously small globe-shaped cage alongside two other cyclists, narrowly missing one another as they speed round and round, going nowhere. You'd be forgiven for saying, "Point taken!" right then and there as you get up to leave.
Symbolism gives way to big plotting, though, and before long the sad saga of fathers and sons and the way they ruin one another is in motion, shifting from character to character and decade to decade, promising way more than it can ever hope to deliver in what suddenly seems like a too-short two-and-half-hours. Gosling's daredevil turns to bank robbery to support the baby he didn't know he fathered with Mendes. And when Cooper foils the novice criminal's last heist, the story shifts to him and his own descent into some bad behavior (aided by the always creepy, always menacing Ray Liotta), compromises for the sake of his career that result in an offscreen divorce and a ruined son (Emory Cohen). So yes, that cage only locks from the outside; if you're in it you'd better keep riding. Meanwhile, coincidences -- the kind that routinely take place in heavy message films like this -- conspire to keep the men's offspring (Dane DeHaan plays Gosling's grown-up kid) doing just that, well into the future.
And I promise this is the last time I'll reference Halle Berry's frumpy mom-wig in The Call. But it's relevant again, almost trending now, thanks to this film's three-pronged attack of movie star dishevelment: Gosling's terrible bleach-blondness and drunkishly applied ink, Cooper's puffy face, too-close shave and clumsy, jug-ear-accentuating cop haircut, and Mendes' dark undereye circles. It's the curse of pretty actors who also want to do grittier, more downbeat work that their beautiful mugs and rockin' bods precede them. It's a hump they -- and we -- have to get over if we're going to do more than genuflect. They mean well when they go in for this kind of disguise, but in the long run it also becomes its own distraction. The answer? Weirdly enough, it involves Cianfrance opening the film with a close-up of Gosling's sick abs. He knows that he could have cast a team of non-professionals in the manner of Bresson or Beasts of the Southern Wild, also knows that it would have next to no audience without recognizable names on the poster, realizes that it's a no-win and then thrusts that Hey Girl washboard in your face anyway as if to say, "Yes, I know, but let's just move on."
Cianfrance has also already shown in Blue Valentine that he's very familiar with how to work past that distraction (it starred Gosling and an Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams, after all) while pushing specific narrative details into his formal concerns and creating indelible images, characters and moods. But this is not that kind of film. Characters sacrifice the future of their children on the altar of their own never-quite-explained ambitions and the film sacrifices that intimate detail for the sake of a never-quite-explained circle of life and death.