Tricky things epics. By definition they must be long otherwise they wouldn’t be epic. By necessity, therefore, they take time to explore their thematic content. It is incumbent on the epic to sustain quality throughout in order to achieve greatness. This film tries very hard, but the effort shows, particularly in the third part of what is, essentially, a triptych that explores the seamier underbelly of American life, past and present.
At two hours twenty minutes long, the film sprawls its way through the events of many years in Schenectady, New York. The Mowhawk name of the town gives the film its title. The three movements of the plot begin with the discovery by motorbike stuntman, Luke Glanton, that he has a son in the town – a result of a one-night stand with Romina, the daughter of a Spanish immigrant family.
The heady mix of petrol, poverty and promiscuity offer a rich canvas on which director Derek Cianfrance paints a picture of an America of a few years ago. An America under attack from its own disenfranchised. Although not set in the fifties, the parallels with Rebel Without A Cause’ are evident. The American Dream is shattering and this story of fathers and sons, and the women who are their collateral damage, makes uncomfortable viewing. The similarity with the earlier film is emphasised by a terrific, brooding performance by Ryan Gosling as Glanton. James Dean he is not, but he rides a mean motorbike and sports some magnificent tattoos whilst peppering every line with the ubiquitous f-word. If you are offended by swearing then this film is not for you. Eva Mendes as Romina is persuasive as ghetto good-time girl aspiring to attain respectability.
This part of the film is the most enjoyable. Perhaps it’s the adrenalin filled bank-heists, or just a pervasive nostalgia, which appeals. There is a sense of anti-climax as realisation dawns. Glanton is not going to reappear and we are to move on to a different America. An America full of apparently square-jawed jocks but one that is riven, also, with corruption – both individual and institutional.
The second Act of the film is a reverse mirror of the first as the focus settles on the all-American boy Avery Cross. Bright, clean-cut, a Law graduate who has entered the police force, Cross seems destined for great things. Disastrously, his narrative becomes inextricably entwined with the legacy of Glanton’s wasted life, to the detriment of both. The film is not unpredictable and as soon as his own young son is presented there is a realisation that the families’ mutual involvement in each others’ affairs is going to be pan-generational. The acting is convincing once again with Bradley Cooper moving to centre stage aided and abetted by Rose Byrne as his wife Jennifer.
And so it transpires as the final Act gets underway. The two boys, now fully grown up, rebel against their own parents in their own turn. The performances of Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen as Glanton fils and Cross fils are full of repressed [and not so repressed] anger and consonant-eschewing modernity. Fuelled by drugs and alcohol, revenge and pathos, the characters and their director finally allow the film to meander towards a predictable, but not unsatisfying end.
The technical achievements are significant. The movie looks, feels and sounds like an authentic America. If you have time to spare, you could do worse than experience that place through Cianfrance’s eyes.