Blame it on the boxset.
Where once the big screen dominated cultural conversation, nowadays a night in, sticking on the latest HBO hit, is as popular as a night out at the movies.
Television’s sprawling, increasingly novelistic canvases have revolutionised how narrative is filmed, allowing stories to evolve organically over many years.
As such, film directors can no longer rely on the simple three-act 90-minute narrative to satiate punters hooked on its slow-burn, drip-feed textures.
Hollywood’s response, just as it was in the 1950s when television first threatened the dominance of cinema, has been to super-size its product in the belief that bum-numbing duration equates to ‘added value’.
Size still matters – but the shape is changing. Avengers Assemblemight once have been a standalone blockbuster; now it’s the finale to a six-movie superhero season. The Hobbit, slimline on the page, must be stretched out into a TLOTR-rivallingtrilogy.
Even Quentin Tarantino extended the simplest of revenge westerns into Django Unchained’s episodic, near-three-hour jamboree.
Yet Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines is possibly the most interesting example yet of a ‘boxset movie’, attempting the scope and complexity of modern TV within the parameters of a single feature.
Cianfrance proved in his last film, Blue Valentine (2010), that he might be alert to the needs of the new storytelling model, using sharp parallel editing to track the beginning and end of a marriage: a season of TV with the middle lopped out. The Place Beyond The Pines puts the middle back in.
It’s a triple-decker melodrama whose loping linearity – straight until it needs to bend to the fresh contours of an unpredictable story – could easily be a mini-series. Indeed, the 140-minute running time roughly equates to three lots of 46, the standard length of an hour-long TV slot shorn of ads.
At first, it’s the story of Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a stunt biker and drifter whose discovery of the existence of a son with old fling Romina (Eva Mendes) drives him into a new career as a bank robber to help support his new family.
By then, Luke’s life of crime has brought him into contact with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a cop juggling his ambitions against the corruption of his colleagues.
Finally, the sins of the fathers ripple into their sons’ lives as history threatens to repeat for Jason Glanton (Dane DeHaan) and AJ Cross (Emory Cohen).
The one constant, and arguably the star of the show, is the setting, the city of Schenectady whose Mohawk name gives the film its poetic title.
Judged by boxset logic, the film’s ambitions become clearer... but so do its flaws. An urgent, bravura opening chapter builds to an exceptional cliffhanger.
The second part charts the aftermath in bold, surprising ways; but the baggy finale is given the thankless task of tying together the myriad plot strands of the earlier instalments.
The unbroken nature of cinema allows Cianfrance to act as if this gradually unfurling plot is spontaneous, but as it reaches its closing stages the coincidences and symmetries start to look over-calculated.
That said, this never feels as structured as many TV shows, because Cianfrance remains committed to the textures of cinema, with a feel for woozy atmospherics and showman’s zest for the medium.
At its best, TPBTP has energy to burn: the opening credits play out in a striking, long take, while the bank robbery getaways are shot in an adrenalised blur.
Yet lyrical dissolves and raw, Cassavetes-style improvisation suggest a more tender, more contemplative side, echoing a lead character in Luke who is both doting dad and diffident outlaw.
And, much like Blue Valentine’s use of indie rockers Grizzly Bear, the differences are bridged by an experimental score, composed here by ex-Faith No More frontman Mike Patton.
Gosling is encouraged to go full-indie by Cianfrance, his peroxide mop and tattoos creating an awkward flipside to the suave anti-hero he played in Drive.
In contrast, Cooper is somewhat unassuming... but that’s a deliberate point of differentiation, and the actor remains on track in his mission to dispel the Hangover hovering over his career.
The time we spend with these characters allows Cianfrance to chart similarities as well as differences, as they react in different ways to parental duties and life’s temptations, allowing enough ironies to multiply that the final act – which essentially consists of characters learning stuff that the audience already knows – just about gets away with it.
That said, the greater joy of the running time comes from showing the breadth of Cianfrance’s talent with actors.
Blue Valentine was very much a two-hander, but TPBTP is a true ensemble piece, benefiting in particular from great work by Ben Mendelsohn as Gosling’s partner in crime, Ray Liotta putting on the menace as a corrupt cop, and DeHaan adding to his rapid accumulation of troubled teens.
The only downside is that this is a man’s film and, while Mendes and Rose Byrne provide strong support, there’s no equivalent to Michelle Williams’ towering performance in Blue Valentine.
No matter: Cianfrance has confirmed himself as one of America’s sharpest screen talents – big or small – and there will be many more episodes beyond the Pines.