Luke (Ryan Gosling) is a motorcycle stuntman, turned criminal trying to provide for his infant son. On the other side of the coin is Avery (Bradley Cooper), a police officer also blessed with a young son. In many ways this is a film about fatherhood. Luke becomes a bank robber, stealing from and terrorising innocent people for the money they have power over. His actions are born not from hate or greed, but the simple desire to provide for his son. He is a good father but a bad citizen. As the film progresses, the idea of citizenship becomes more and more murky. Avery, a trained lawyer with impeccable moral values, becomes a local hero and rises through the ranks – while all the while betraying his own moral code. Tragically, in all his success, he has failed to raise his son with any care or affection. By getting rid of ‘the bad guy’, he has deprived two children of the love of their father: and he fails to relate to his own son knowing that there is another son without a father because of his actions.
This story unfolds gracefully and slowly. We see all the details of this tragedy. The line between criminal and police officer becomes more and more blurred. Avery is deep in a deeply corrupt system. He, like Luke before him, objects to the double standards and turns to corruption himself. It seems that these two men stand alone against a sea of the selfish and entitled residents. The film loses momentum about halfway through and seems to be a cynical, self-involved tragedy that is going nowhere. It has been beautiful, cinematographically excellent, and engagingly written, but it has no point. This changes with a single title card:
15 Years Later
In the third act of the film the tensions are finally played out, not by our earlier protagonists, but by their children. In a dance of divine retribution the two sons have become mirrors of their fathers and each other. Jason, Luke’s son, is in a stable home, he seems to be doing well and is loved and supported by his mother and step-father. Avery’s son AJ, meanwhile, has grown up disturbed in a broken home. His mother doesn’t know how to relate to him and his father refuses to. A cruel reversal of what their fates would have been.
Much is made of the similarities between the two men and their children. Both boys in certain lights are almost identical to their parents. As the parents once echoed one another, the children do too. Even reacting in the same way as their fathers when threatened or angered . The parallels are subconscious, yet more and more it does not matter whether Jason interacts with Avery or AJ, the effect is the same, the father and son are continuations of one another. At these points the cinematography, which, while beautiful throughout (courtesy of Sean Bobbitt who also brought us ‘Shame’ and ‘Hunger’), becomes truly breathtaking. The encounters between Jason and AJ echo scenes from earlier in the film. The camera angles are repeated almost shot-for-shot at times, making for haunting, almost subconscious recollections.
The real tragedy of the story is that these people, all of them, are not making their own decisions. They are caught up in a fight for karmic balance, which takes seventeen years to become stable after Luke destroyed it. When we first met Luke he was part of a travelling fair, he did not belong in this leafy town. This was clear from the moment we saw him: tattooed, chain smoking and wearing threadbare clothes even in church. The balance of this town is changed by his arrival and two families are touched by his presence. Nothing can return to its level until Jason, the spiritual continuation of Luke, closes the circle.