If you ride like lightning, you’re going to crash like thunder.
Those words are spoken by auto body shop owner and bank robber Robin (the superlative Ben Mendelsohn). He’s the colorful character who gets all the best lines and spouts all the wisdom in Derek Cianfrance’s epic generational Upstate New York melodrama that spans fifteen years and is told in three parts. He says these words to small-time hood, motorcycle carnival trickster, blue-eyed and tattooed baby boy Luke (Ryan Gosling – aka The Gos, in his wheelhouse) who Robin has recently taken under his wing for a couple of bank jobs.
And no words spoken were ever truer. Luke has just found out that a former fling named Romina (a smoldering Eva Mendes who first appears on-screen in a t-shirt with no bra underneath like KAPOOYA!) had his baby – but she’s trying to move on, do right, and has shacked-up with a real man. Robin convinces Luke that his particular skill set (riding fast) would be best suited for crime and that is the best way to win back his woman and provide for his family. But even Robin knows there’s such a thing as riding too fast.
The second episode deals with a cop named Avery (Bradley Cooper, continuing his surprisingly successful transformation into a real dramatic actor) who takes down Luke and then confuses ambition and corruption. He’s got a baby boy and a heavy conscience, too.
And those two baby boys cross paths as teenagers in the third episode. Luke and Romina’s son, Jason (an excellent Dane DeHaan) is a troubled but good-hearted loner who never really felt at home with his multiracial family and has been shielded from the tragic truth about his father. Avery’s son is a spoiled wannabe punk/tough guy (played with obnoxious Jersey Shore-style vitality by the awful Emory Cohen) who is emblematic of being raised in a family headed by a man of questionable morals.
Fueled by a magnificent music score heavily influenced by the evocative work of Arvo Part, Cianfrance’s ambitious mini-trilogy is a finely crafted piece of slow-burning entertainment. The cast is full of sure-handed performances (Mendlesohn, Mendes and DeHaan creating the heart of the film) and features cracker-jack supporting turns from the likes of Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne and Bruce Greenwood. Emory Cohen is the only weak link, but it’s not enough to sink the ship. Some might pick the film apart and claim the second and third acts aren’t as strong as the first, but they would be missing the point of enjoying a fully fleshed-out character arc.
You see, the central character of the story is actually Jason. And the pines of the title and of Schenectady are, of course, both physical and metaphorical. Jason learns the truth about his dad (from Robin, naturally) and he realizes the only way to escape those towering pines (representing the legacy of our fathers’ actions) is to reach for that place beyond them.
Sometimes you don’t have to ride like lightning and crash like thunder…sometimes all you need to do is ride.
Written by David H. Schleicher