Director/writer Derek Cianfrance is ambitious and aggressive here. The film has holes, but I enjoy its ingenuity. A lot. I have truthfully never seen a film quite like this one, a film that jumps between protaganists, using something as simple as a single look between characters. It has three protagonists (Luke, Avery, Jason) spanning two generations and a handful of strong supporting players. As impressively, it jumps forward in time without hestitation and with aplomb. None of three primary stories are all that original in their own right, but the way Cianfrance put them together is different than anything I have ever before seen. The structure, the way the story arcs are fused together, is worth the price of admission all on its own.
Ryan Gosling as Luke Glanton is the perfect triggerman, as it were, to get this thing started. He is dark, brooding, a little scary and constantly on the edge of wanting to do the right thing but not quite knowing how. Cianfrance and Gosling make him a sympathetic thug without excusing his behavior. That even Luke knows he’s doing wrong, even as he does it, and that Gosling manages to show as much while Cianfrance manages to direct and write it . . . that is truly impressive. At this point, I would give Gosling a Best Supporting nom, though he wouldn’t win (McConaughy will wind up being looked at for Best Actor, but as Mud is not the main character in Mud, I would give McConaughy the Best Supporting Actor award).
I might give Cianfrance a Best Screenplay nom as well, were it not for how poorly this feature treats its female characters. The theme of cause and effect (the sins of the father visiting the son), etc, is powerful, but I wish Cianfrance had found some way to make the women more impactful. Rose Byrne’s Jennifer is little more than a thorn in Bradley Cooper’s Avery’s side. Eva Mendes’ Romina is treated even worse; she’s just a clueless push over who is always gullible and always unable to cope with the troubles wrought by the men in her life. This is more problematic because both Jennifer and Romina are, in all other ways, strong women who care deeply about their children. Would have been nice for them to matter more in the paths their children followed.
The worst story is the last, that of Dane Dehaan’s Jason and Emory Cohen’s AJ. Here the coincidences pile up. As do the plot holes, the most significant being: why, exactly, does Jason care so deeply about the father he never knew? To make me understand the answer to that question, the film needed to spend more time exploring Jason’s emotions, not just his actions.